By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Threatened with the possibility that an army of cashiers with barcode-reading guns could invade hallowed ground near the site of one of the Civil War's most hellish battles, Virginia's two most powerful political foes have united in a bipartisan stand to relocate a proposed Wal-Mart in Orange County.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R) -- who have been on warring sides of many state issues -- have written to the Board of Supervisors, asking it to help Wal-Mart find a site farther from the Wilderness battlefield.
"We strongly encourage your Board to work closely with Wal-Mart to find an appropriate alternative site for the proposed retail center in the vicinity of the proposed site yet situated outside the boundaries of Wilderness Battlefield and out of the view of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park," says Monday's letter co-signed by Kaine and Howell. In their letter, Kaine and Howell also offered state resources in helping to work out an alternative.
Kaine has made his preservation of 400,000 acres of open land a centerpiece of his tenure; Howell is a Civil War buff who has also been co-chairman of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.
The Wilderness marked the first clash between Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and culminated in a savage exchange of fire in a jungle-like inferno of scrub oak and pines. The May 1864 battle killed or wounded 24,000 soldiers. The National Park Service owns 2,800 acres of the core battlefield, whose larger area extends across almost 7,000 acres.
Wal-Mart has proposed a 138,000-square-foot store and parking lot on a site that is considered a gateway to the battlefield. Located on a hilltop overlooking the battlefield, the site had been zoned for commercial development for some time but still has little more than a small shopping plaza opposite a Sheetz gas station.
Preliminary plans also called for the discount store to be adjacent to a retail, office and residential complex called Wilderness Crossing. Neither the supercenter nor the larger complex would be built on the battlefield. A study commissioned by the company said the proposed site lacked historical and archaeological significance.
Keith Morris, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the company believes the current plan is sensitive to the battlefield's historic importance.
"We wholeheartedly agree this project presents the unique opportunity to bring the interests of battlefield preservation and smart development effectively into balance, and that is precisely what we have accomplished with our current proposal," he said, noting that the site has been zoned for commercial development for more than 20 years and serves an area where more than 5,000 homes and compatible commercial development exist.
Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust who publicized the joint letter yesterday, said a similar proposal to find a more suitable location had been floated this year by the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, an organization of national, regional and local preservation groups.
"There are a couple options we looked at," Campi said in an interview. He said the corporation would be more respectful of the nation's history and better off economically by locating farther west on Route 3, closer to commercial centers on the way to Culpeper. Although the site had long been zoned for commercial activity, he said no one thought it might be on Wal-Mart's scale.
"What's being proposed here is four times the existing commercial at that site," Campi said.
The two candidates who hope to assume Kaine's seat -- state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) and former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell (R) -- also have publicly urged Wal-Mart to move farther from the battlefield, Campi said.