John "Jack" P. Hewitt (1922-2004) received the Pugsley Medal in 1967 "for his contribution in protecting natural scenery and historic landmarks in Washington's Maryland suburbs." He was born in Silver Spring and attended Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) whose headquarters are in his hometown of Silver Spring.
MNCPPC is a bi-county commission incorporating Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties, Maryland. The counties consist of approximately 1,000 square miles on the Maryland side of Washington D.C. The agency is funded primarily by tax levies approved independently by voters in each of the two counties. The agency's name was derived from the National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Washington D.C., because its function was to complement the work of that agency. The original rationale for establishing MNCPPC was to protect the headquarters of the stream valleys which fed into the Potomac River before residential growth overwhelmed them. Thus, Hewitt later in his career, stated his goal was to "ensure suburban Maryland residents will not drown in a sea of concrete."
Hewitt's first experiences with the MNCPPC were in 1938 and 1939 when, as a high school student, he was employed as a summer maintenance person. He joined the National Guard at the age of 16 and with the onset of WorldWar II, he served five years in the Army attaining the rank of captain. After his discharge from the Army, Hewitt returned home to look for a job and was hired in 1946 by MNCPPC as a clerk assigned to the Information and Records Section. His job was to provide information to people about subdivision plots and zoning. At that time, the park system consisted of fewer than 2,000 acres. By the time he retired from the system almost 30 years later, the acreage had approached 30,000 acres, and Hewitt was centrally involved in the acquisition of it.
In 1948, he moved to the Engineering and Design Division with responsibility for identifying boundaries of the stream valley parks the commission should seek to acquire. He spent extensive time in the field getting to know the landowners so they became comfortable with him and receptive to selling their properties to the MNCPPC. The stream valley parks and the regional parks acquired in these formative years of the system became the agency's flagship facilities.
During his early years at the commission, Hewitt also worked a second job at night since the pay was low and he had family expenses to meet. He did attend some evening classes at Montgomery Junior College, but growing responsibilities at the commission meant an increasing number of night meetings, so he had to give up the goal of a college education. He compensated for his lack of a formal college education by his involvement with the American Institute of Park Executives which he joined in 1954. Interaction with his peers in the group and participation in seminars were his main sources of education. Despite the limited formal education, Hewitt was known throughout his career not only for his acquisition program, but also for his willingness to innovate and introduce things he saw and learned about in other park systems. For example, he used option agreements frequently in his acquisition program:
When we didn't have enough money, we said to the people that owned the land that we wanted, "We will buy so much each year for 10 years and we will take it off the tax rolls, but you use it for the entire 10 years and we will pay you to take title to so much each year."
The advantages to the landowners were that they received payment for the land over 10 years rather than in a lump sum so the income was likely to be in a lower tax bracket; the land could be lived on during this period, or for the length of the sellers' lives; and property taxes were abated for the whole tract at the first date of purchases so none were paid over the 10-year period. From the commission's perspective, it could pay for the land out of current income without increasing interest payments associated with bonds or other borrowing instruments, and the price of the last acre purchased in year 10 was the same as the first acre. In his classic book, The Last Landscape, William H (Holly) Whyte, cited Hewitt's strategy as an example of innovative practice, observing;
The Commission nails down the land for only a fraction of the money it ordinarily would have to put up and freezes the cost of subsequent payments -- the price of the last acre ten years hence will be the price of the first acre. The commission does not have to spend any money to maintain the land; the farmer maintains it.
In its formative years, MNCPPC did not have a parks director, but Hewitt assumed increased responsibilities and duties in the acquisition and development of parks. After his stint with the Engineering and Design Division, he became administrative assistant to the commission's vice-chairman, where he was responsible for ensuring the commission's policy decisions were implemented; for preparing and monitoring the parks' budgets; and for the park acquisition program. Daily supervision of the parks' operations was someone else's responsibility. However, in 1957, the agency reorganized, and appointed Hewitt to the new position of parks director for Montgomery County. He was responsible for a staff of 200, and he remained in that position until 1971. He commented that during that period of his career, "I couldn't wait to wake up in the morning and go to work. At weekends, I took my grandsons in the car to the park where I'd talk to people and find out their concerns and what they liked."
At the beginning of his tenure as parks director for Montgomery County, the agency developed a parks plan projecting its needs for the next 20-30 years. Hewitt used the area's civic organizations as a major vehicle for winning support to implement the plan. Typically, he would speak at over 100 meetings a year with different groups. He perceived them to be opinion leaders in the community who helped sell the plan to the rest of the public and to exert pressure on elected officials. The vision from this plan was the springboard which launched the system. Some criticized him for purchasing large tracts of land in rural areas,but the foresight in protecting that land and creating the regional park system in advance of population growth was perhaps Hewitt's major contribution.
He effectively filled two positions: director of parks and chief land acquisition officer. Hewitt's aggressive land acquisition effort in an area that was still primarily rural was opposed by some who said the agency was acquiring more land than was needed to meet the population's needs. However,Hewitt foresaw the rapid expansion that would come in the Washington D.C. area and prepared for it. Thus, for example, the 500 acres of land for Wheaton Regional Park was purchased for $1.8 million in 1956, and 35 years later its estimated value was $100 million. In 1969, Tbe Washington Post commented: "For all suburban Maryland's growth pains, it is doing one thing superbly. It is acquiring park lands and developing paiks, and continuing to do so on a scale unmatched in the Washington area."
Hewitt's strategy was always to be on the offensive by pointing out in public at every opportunity what the commission had achieved in parks. He would say;
Look, here is what we're doing. We have done this because we had these funds to do it with. But we could do a lot more; we could do what you want us to do if you would help us and go to the county government and say, "We need more money to do what we have to do."
His reputation for land acquisition was such that when the federal government launched the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in 1965, Congressional aides responsible for the legislation sought his guidance in establishing the criteria for grants from it. In the late 1960s, federal and state grant programs were a major stimulus for acquisition by MNCPPC, contributing alnost 80% of the cost of the land acquired.
In 1971, Hewitt was appointed executive-director of MNCPPC, responsible for both communities. However, the job was primarily administration and he missed the hands-on action associated with being parks director and land acquisition. Hewitt retired from the agency in 1974 and ran for the office of county executive, but was not elected. When he started with the agency there were 1,600 acres of park land in Montgomery County. When he retired in 1974, Montgomery County had 27,000 acres of park land.
Given his reputation for excellence and his extensive experience in government, the governor of Maryland asked him to become director of Maryland's Energy Policy Office based in Baltimore. He did this for two and a half years until there was a change in governor. In 1978, Hewitt returned to Silver Spring and took over leadership of a family real estate business that had been started by his father and operated for many years by his brothers. In the late 1980s, he was appointed to a four-year term as a commissioner of the MNCPPC.
Among his many leadership positions in the field, Hewitt was president of both the Maryland Recreation and Park Association and the American Park and Recreation Society. He was described as "an easy going, but precisely efficient man who works with a pencil over his ear and who enjoys a good cigar after a good meal."
Dwyer, Mike.(1991, February 27). Interview of Jack Hewitt. MNCPPC Archives.