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Arlington National Cemetery To Be Expanded?

When President Bill Clinton signed a $289 billion defense bill into law October 5, 1999, it included a plan to expand Arlington National Cemetery. Projections have shown that Arlington is quickly filling up and that if current trends continue, it could run out of space in the next 25 years.

The legislated expansion includes a transfer of approximately 37 acres of land currently occupied by the Navy Annex, adjacent to the southern tip of the cemetery off of Columbia Pike, and eight acres of land from Fort Myer that border the cemetery along its northwestern section.

The Fort Myer portion includes five acres of park land adjoining the cemetery along McNair Road from the Post Chapel to the Vehicle Maintenance Complex, and three acres off of Jackson Avenue along the Vehicle Maintenance Complex to the water pumping station.

Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. said he was pleased by passage of the bill. He said the planned expansion would help provide burial space at the cemetery though the year 2060, under existing burial criteria.

Another piece of land currently being considered to facilitate Arlington's expansion is a parcel of land inside the cemetery controlled by the National Park Service, a site occupied by Arlington House, also known as the Custis-Lee Mansion, the former plantation home of Mary Ann Randolph Custis, a relative of President George Washington, who later lived there with husband Lt. Robert E. Lee, who went on to become a Confederate general.

A park service study has recommended turning over a portion of this land to the cemetery. Some historical groups and environmentalists have voiced concern about such a turnover. A grove of trees there is said to date back to Colonial times.

Representatives of Arlington County have also expressed disappointment that they were left out of the decision-making process by Congress. Although none of the land involved is county land, officials think they deserved a say on land use issues that impact the county.

"This is our backyard and you are one of our neighbors," said Dick Bridges, Arlington's assistant county manager for public information. "We'd liked to have had a voice in what happens to the Navy Annex. Once it's taken, it's permanent."

Bridges, an Army serviceman who is eligible for burial at Arlington, said he personally believes taking down any of the trees would be a mistake. "These are large trees that have been there forever. It's a law of diminishing returns. If you take away all the trees and amenities, Arlington is not a special place anymore."

Metzler said that in developing the parcel, the cemetery would preserve the best of the historic trees at the site. He added that trees and the landscaping at the cemetery are an integral part of Arlington's character. He said he would be meeting with park officials this week to talk about future plans for the site.

Metzler said Arlington would be adding additional columbariums along some of the acquired land in conjunction with two undeveloped parcels the cemetery already owns.

The columbariums are structures where cremated remains are interred in the cemetery, allowing less stringent burial criteria and provided additional space for interment.

One possible crimp in the expansion plans is that the Navy Annex is one of several sites being considered for a National Military Museum or military memorial.. Language inserted in the defense bill by Senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) indicates that as many as 10 acres of the annex land could be set aside while a special commission studies the feasibility of this and several alternative sites. In any event, the legislation states that the land transfer won't take place for at least another decade.

Expansion is an issue that will likely have to be revisited in the future, Metzler said, as spaces at the cemetery continue to fill up.