Wilderness Wal-Mart Study Is Worth Pursuing

Monday, August 3, 2009

SOON, RESIDENTS of Virginia's Orange County may be able to "Save money, live better" -- but at the cost of controversy.

Wal-Mart plans to become the first large retailer in the predominantly rural county. With the state unemployment rate at 7.3 percent, the jobs and tax revenue promised by the coming of a major retailer are more than welcome to Orange County residents. But the location of the proposed store has sent Civil War buffs and elected officials into a tizzy. That's because Wal-Mart is preparing to break ground across Route 3 from the National Park Service portion of the Wilderness Battlefield -- a historic site where Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee first clashed, in an 1864 battle. Historians and preservationists, as well as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), have rallied against the construction of the store in its proposed location.

So far, Wal-Mart and the Orange County Board of Supervisors haven't budged -- and they may have good reason not to. In a largely undeveloped county, one plot of grass and woodland may seem identical to the next, but the piece of land in dispute is unique for more than its historical significance. Few properties in the area are zoned for commercial use and, of those that are, Wal-Mart claims that this is the only one that fits its minimum standards, which take into account size and configuration of a property, transportation access, and access to utilities.

Preservationists are right to want to protect some of the battlefield. However, if we decided to preserve every piece of land on which American blood was shed in the Civil War, a huge portion of Virginia would be untouchable. Critics also argue that building a Wal-Mart so near the park would ruin the historic ambiance of the place, because the store would be visible from the field. But the proposed store would be on a hill behind a buffer of trees, and the building would be colored in subtle earth tones so that the portion of the building that rises above the tree line would not clash with the landscape that surrounds it.

One appeal by the preservationists has merit. They have offered to fund a six-month land-planning study to search for a suitable alternative site for Wal-Mart. The county has repeatedly rejected the idea. But because the proposed study would not be funded by tax dollars, and because six months is not an enormous amount of time, it doesn't make sense for the county not to allow it -- regardless of how likely it is to produce a better plan than Wal-Mart's.

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