Construction of the $140 million, 7.5-acre monument to the war's veterans has been blocked because of legal action taken by opponents organized as the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.
The coalition objects to the monument's large scale and complains that the chosen site at the foot of the mall's Reflecting Pool intrudes upon the open space belonging to the Lincoln Memorial.
Contending the project was approved in violation of the Reagan-era Commemorative Works Act and the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, among other laws, the group filed suit in federal district court here asking for an injunction to halt it. The Justice Department also asked for a halt until questions are resolved concerning the legality of the process that authorized the memorial.
Late last month, Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., introduced a measure calling for the government to "expeditiously proceed with the construction of the World War II Memorial at the dedicated Rainbow Pool site ... without regard to the National Environmental Policy Act, the Commemorative Works Act or any other law pertaining to the sitting or design for the World War II Memorial."
"This [measure] is an attempt to nullify federal law," coalition chair Judy Scott Feldman said this week. "It's so astonishing. It seems to indicate that there must be something terribly wrong with the process that was followed. To nullify all laws indicates our case is a very strong one."
Hutchinson's measure has already advanced two readings with little notice, a legislative step that clears the way for a vote. If approved by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, it would become part of the Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act, legislation that enjoys wide support.
A spokeswoman for Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said lawmakers had not yet decided whether to hold a public hearing on the measure.
"Some of our colleagues may not be aware that even after having had the opportunity to argue their case before the 22 public hearings over the last five years regarding the site and design of the memorial, opponents have now turned to the courts to overturn the memorial's approval," Hutchinson said.
An immediate issue is the assertion by the Justice Department that three key approval votes of the federal National Capital Planning Commission were taken with Harvey Gantt sitting as chairman, even though his term on the commission had expired and he technically was no longer a member.
The commission is to meet in closed session Thursday to decide how to meet the legal questions raised about the votes.
Contending that Gantt not only voted on the issue when he was not entitled to but also steered the monument proposal through the commission, opponents are asking the commission to have the entire memorial proposal reconsidered. Gantt no longer sits as a member. They are also asking that Thursday's session be opened to the public.
The World War II Memorial project was approved by the Interior Department, the federal Fine Arts Commission and the planning commission in the last year of the Clinton administration, and a ceremonial groundbreaking was held in November.
Though pared down from a larger initial proposal, the memorial's design features two four-story victory towers and a circle of 17-foot-high monumental slabs that will surround the smaller Rainbow Pool at the end of the Reflecting Pool.
As originally proposed by its chief sponsor, the federal American Battle Monuments Commission, the memorial was to have been built in woods adjoining the Mall called Constitution Gardens. The site at the end of the Reflecting Pool was adopted instead at the suggestion of Fine Arts Commission Chairman J. Carter Brown, former head of the National Gallery of Art.
Feldman's coalition has argued that this change was adopted without following proper procedure, that the Interior Department failed to undertake environmental studies required by law, and that the memorial illegally impinges on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial.
(c) 2001, Chicago Tribune.
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