By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Like Civil War generals, the generals of modern commercial development are attracted to large open spaces along well-traveled roads, typically on the outskirts of a town or major population center. The former picked those sites for battlefields a century and a half ago; the latter like them today for big-box stores.
And once again, great armies are mustering on the Virginia Piedmont -- historians and preservationists on one side, big retail and developers on the other -- this time in cash-strapped Orange County, 60 miles south of the District, where Wal-Mart wants to build a supercenter directly opposite the Wilderness Battlefield.
There, in May 1864, 24,000 soldiers were killed or wounded as the first clash between Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant produced famously hellish combat in a burning thicket of scrub oak and spindly pine trees. The National Park Service owns 2,800 acres of the core battlefield, whose larger area extends across nearly 7,000 acres.
That land is mostly undeveloped, and to Wal-Mart, it looks like a prime retail location. The parcel where the company plans to build its 138,000-square-foot store and parking lot has long been zoned for commercial development but has little more than a small shopping plaza opposite a Sheetz gas station. There are also preliminary plans for a larger retail, office and residential complex, Wilderness Crossing, that would be built adjacent to the Wal-Mart, although no formal proposals have been submitted.
Neither the supercenter nor the larger complex would be built on the core battlefield area. A study commissioned by the company found that the parcel slated for development is not historically or archaeologically significant.
But opponents contend that the supercenter would unleash a wave of sprawling development through the area, marring the mostly rural landscape and the memory of the dead. The Battle of the Wilderness was the first clash in the long Overland Campaign that would end the war 11 months later at Appomattox Courthouse, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson.
"The Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved," read a letter signed by McPherson and 252 other historians and preservationists that was sent recently to Wal-Mart's president and chief executive, Lee Scott. "Surely Walmart can identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield."
The letter's signatories include a who's who of Civil War heavyweights: filmmaker Ken Burns, Pulitzer winner David McCullough, University of Virginia professor Garry Gallagher, Virginia Tech Center for Civil War Studies Executive Director James I. Robertson and other scholars from across the country.
"Every one of these modern intrusions on the historic landscape degrades the value and experience of that landscape," said McPherson, who said that he has been to the proposed site and that a Wal-Mart would take development in the area "a quantum leap higher."
Keith Morris, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said that the company has looked at other locations in the area but that none was as attractive. "This is the site we're going forward with," Morris said, describing it as "an ideal location." The land is already zoned for commercial use and targeted for development by Orange County, he said. "There is a void here in this immediate area, especially in retail growth."
Preservation groups in Virginia have generally been successful in recent years in steering development projects away from battlefields or reaching compromises with builders that result in partial protection for historic sites. A 214-acre portion of the Chancellorsville battlefield, a few miles down the road from the proposed Wal-Mart, was acquired for preservation by the Civil War Preservation Trust between 2004 and 2006. And in Prince William County, 127 acres of the Bristoe Station battlefield's core section were preserved in a 2002 deal with residential developers who wanted to put hundreds of houses there.
But that was before the economic slump.
"I think economic downturns clarify some things," said R. Mark Johnson, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, which will ultimately decide on the proposal. "In this environment, to have a major retailer like Wal-Mart still want to come in is fairly significant and not something we can be casual about."
Johnson said he plans to support Wal-Mart and thinks that a majority of the five-member board will vote to approve the supercenter. The company's proposal first must be reviewed by county planners and state transportation officials and then will go to a public hearing, Johnson said. He said he expected the proposal to come before the supervisors for a vote between February and April.
Based on sales estimates, the Wal-Mart is expected to generate about $500,000 a year in tax revenue for Orange County. The county's budget, including its school spending, is roughly $90 million, Johnson said, and tax revenue is falling.
"In order to have a healthy economy, you need retail in order to satisfy demand," Johnson said. "If [the project] doesn't happen in Orange County, it'll happen in Spotsylvania County, and then we'll lose that revenue." There are three Wal-Mart stores in the Fredericksburg area, including Spotsylvania County, and one in Culpeper.
Opponents of the Wal-Mart plan said they are not against the company or its presence in Orange County, only its proposed location. They are urging Wal-Mart to build a few miles down the road, closer to the Lake of the Woods gated subdivision, which has about 4,000 residents and would be the store's major source of customers.
"It's got nothing to do with Wal-Mart," said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust, the group leading the fight. "But this is the worst possible location. I believe this is the closest Wal-Mart has ever tried to build next to a national park."
The Wilderness Battlefield is part of the National Park Service's Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which also includes the Chancellorsville Battlefield.
Wal-Mart spokesman Morris said the company should be judged only on the merits of its proposed store and not by other development that it might attract. "All we have control over is what we're proposing," he said. "Don't criticize this plan because you're afraid something will get built after that. We shouldn't be held accountable because people's real concern is future commercial development a year or five years down the road."
The company has offered to place commemorative markers and other monuments to the battle at the supercenter. "There's no reason why [the battlefield and the store] can't coexist," Morris said.
As for residents, some said they were willing to trade a little history for convenience.
"I think we need it here," said Nina Hudson, who said she drives 30 to 40 miles round trip to shop at Wal-Mart in Culpeper or Fredericksburg.
"That's the past, and we have to think about the future," said Jackie Lee, who also lives near the proposed store. "The world's growing, and you can't stop that."
Stuart Stevens, a naval police officer, said he's dead set against the Wal-Mart. "They don't care about history," he said. "They just care about the almighty dollar."
Early this month, not far from the proposed Wal-Mart site, the park superintendent, Russ Smith, and the park historian, Eric Mink, took a walk out to a headstone near Ellwood Manor, a 1790s house that served as headquarters for Union commanders during the battle and is being restored. The view from the front porch has changed little in 150 years, encompassing mostly open fields, old barns and rolling hills.
"These are sacred spaces," Smith said, worrying that visitors to the historic home would also face views of Wal-Mart.
The crudely cut headstone in a cornfield near the house is marked "Arm of Stonewall Jackson," designating the spot where the general's amputated arm was supposedly buried after his accidental and mortal wounding by his own men in the 1863 Chancellorsville battle.
The Park Service excavated the site but never found the arm, Smith said.