Virginia’s irreplaceable historic landscapes, from the Piedmont to the Tidewater, are at the heart of our national heritage and their preservation is an issue that should concern all Virginians.
So, it is shocking to learn that commercial real estate speculators are now pressuring elected officials in rural Orange County to approve plans for a bland but mammoth 145,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, a sea of parking, and a 900-acre business park and retail center with three more big-box stores. This cookie-cutter behemoth will sit just one-quarter mile from the main entrance to a unique treasure, the Wilderness Battlefield, which honors the sacrifice of the 29,000 Americans who were killed, wounded or captured there in one of the largest and most strategically important battles of the Civil War.
The heart of the battlefield sits within the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, a key destination in the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground,” named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2005, and this year designated a National Heritage Area by Congress. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and a growing coalition led by the Civil War Preservation Trust and Piedmont Environmental Council strongly oppose intensive commercial development at this historic place, the intersection of Route 20 and Route 3.
These incompatible new commercial developments would irreparably harm the battlefield and the National Park – and the bulldozers are poised to start construction.
The so-called “Wilderness Wal-Mart” would severely degrade the wooded setting for the Civil War battlefield, promote commercial sprawl and drastically increase traffic through the heart of the park. Moreover, the resulting big-box traffic congestion is likely to resurrect VDOT’s flawed plan to widen Route 20 from two to four lanes, paving over a swath of the battlefield and the National Park – a fatal mistake strongly opposed by preservationists because the historic Orange Turnpike, now Route 20, was the scene of fierce fighting during the 1864 battle.
Beyond destroying the historic integrity of the area and creating a situation that might call for the destruction of part of the historic battlefield itself, the development also would undermine local efforts to generate much-needed revenue from tourism.
When visitors stand today on Civil War battleground at Gettysburg, Cedar Creek, Antietam, or the Wilderness, and are able to see the same fields and hills that soldiers fought across nearly 150 years ago, their understanding of the history that happened there is greatly enhanced. When those heritage tourists are inspired to extend their visits or return for a future visit to the National Park and Wilderness Battlefield, Orange County’s local businesses benefit economically. Over-sized commercial growth adjacent to a unique and irreplaceable preserved landscape risks the authenticity of the battlefield viewshed and erodes the experience of those visiting the historic site.
Recently, 253 eminent historians – including David McCullough, James McPherson, Edwin Bearss and Ken Burns – joined the chorus of Americans imploring Wal-Mart to abandon its destructive proposal.
To its credit, Orange County’s comprehensive plan embraces the importance of conserving the county’s rural character by limiting sprawling growth and promoting the preservation of historic areas. In fact, in 2007 the comprehensive plan was revised to “discourage development that would necessitate the construction of a four-lane highway over any portion of Route 20 in Orange County.” Accordingly, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its allies believe that Orange County’s elected officials should reject current plans for the Wal-Mart and business park at the gateway to the historic battlefield.
Experts agree that the Wilderness Battlefield is one of our nation’s most significant Civil War battlefields. More than 2,700 acres of the battlefield are permanently preserved for the public’s benefit within the boundaries of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. However, it’s up to the leaders and citizens of Orange County and the Commonwealth of Virginia today to conserve the battlefield’s rural setting against ill-conceived growth and transportation planning.
Preservationists certainly are not opposed to commercial growth in Orange County, but we believe the proposed Wal-Mart and 2.6-million-square-foot business park should not be permitted to critically threaten Virginia and our nation’s heritage. There are many potential sites for Wal-Mart, but only one Wilderness Battlefield, the preservation of which is crucial to the understanding of our history and the education of our children in addition to the welfare of local communities.
For more information about the Wilderness Wal-Mart, please visit www.wildernesswalmart.com.
-- Richard Moe
Richard Moe is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This op-ed article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 21, 2008.
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