Written by Robert Nieweg
Last night more than 200 people attended a public hearing of the Orange County Planning Commission regarding Wal-Mart's proposal to construct 240,000 square feet of large-scale commercial development within the boundaries of the historic Wilderness Battlefield and immediately adjacent to the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The May 21, 2009, public hearing began with a packed house at 7:15 pm and ended with an exhausted Planning Commission at 11:15 pm. To its credit, the Planning Commission conducted a civil public hearing and appeared to listen closely to all who testified.
Seventy-three members of the public spoke to the Commission, with opponents of the destructive proposal outnumbering supporters two-to-one. One observer noted that 48 speakers said they were residents of Orange County, with 30 local residents speaking against the project and 18 speaking in favor. After closing the public hearing, the Planning Commission agreed to meet again June 11 to vote on this controversial issue. The commission's vote is purely advisory. A final decision by the Board of Supervisors is expected later in June.
Local members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Wilderness Battlefield Coalition were out in force, with testimony from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Field Office, Civil War Preservation Trust, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, Piedmont Environmental Council, National Parks Conservation Association, and Preservation Virginia. We are grateful that the National Park Service and Virginia Department of Historic Resources sent senior level staffers who provided informative testimony. Perhaps the most evocative testimony was provided late last night by Alexander Hays IV, a descendant of Union General Alexander Hays, who was killed during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. A former elected official himself, Mr. Hays said he traveled from Canton, Ohio, to strongly urge the commissioners to think long and hard before making this critical decision.
Proponents of Wal-Mart said they want convenient shopping, jobs for Orange County residents, and tax revenue -- all reasonable requests. Preservationists don't oppose commercial development in Orange County, but have asked Wal-Mart to relocate its store to another site in Orange County away from the battlefield and National Park. Clearly, there's room for compromise. That's why in January 2009 the National Trust and its allies in the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition offered to fund a land-use planning process to envision a better balance of historic preservation and sustainable economic growth at this highly vulnerable historic place. Orange County officials -- necessary partners in the proposed planning process -- have twice dismissed the offer of technical assistance.
Surprisingly, three of the five members of the elected Board of Supervisors have taken the unusual step of publicly expressing their support for the Wal-Mart project -- long before Wal-Mart's permit application was finalized or the first public hearing was held.
Controversy continues to swirl around the historic significance of the 52-acre site of the proposed Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart's site stands within the historic boundaries of the battlefield, according to the congressionally authorized Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, National Park Service, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition. Unfortunately, the staff report to the Planning Commission from Orange County's Department of Community Development incorrectly says that the Wal-Mart site is only "in the near vicinity" of the battlefield. To correct the May 6, 2009, staff report, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources wrote the Planning Commission on May 20, 2009, that the "proposed Wal-Mart site is located entirely within the boundaries of the Wilderness Battlefield," that Wilderness Battlefield possesses the "highest level of historical significance and merits the highest priority for preservation," and that, in the Department's judgment, the proposed development would "have a serious adverse effect both on the Wilderness Battlefield and on the National Park."
For its part, Wal-Mart apparently continues to believe that "its store isn't on the battlefield and won't harm the nearby national park," according to the May 21, 2009, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Preservationists have gone to great lengths to correct Wal-Mart's misconception. Indeed, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has met at the battlefield with Wal-Mart representatives to provide a detailed briefing on the unique and irreplaceable nature of the battlefield site and the irrevocable harm that Wal-Mart's project would cause. Our analysis shows that the 240,000 square feet of commercial development proposed by Wal-Mart would be plainly visible from the battlefield and National Park, and would foreclose any opportunity to alter the existing tree coverage and restore the open vistas of the 1864 battlefield -- as the National Park Service and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield intend -- for the benefit of the American public.
If you would like to help save Wilderness Battlefield, the National Trust recommends that you should write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Help the National Trust for Historic Preservation to raise the alarm.
Robert Nieweg is the director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Southern Field Office.
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