The first shot in a long legal battle over a superstore near a Civil War battlefield has hit Wal-Mart — but its just a superficial wound.
Seven months ago, on September 24, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that a proposed Wal-Mart superstore near the infamous Wilderness Civil War battlefield in Orange County, Virginia had become the site of another conflagration.
The outcome of the Wilderness Battle may have been hard for Union or Confederate troops to predict at the time — but the political outcome of the Wal-Mart battle near the Wilderness Battlefield 145 years later was never in doubt. Local officials favored the project even before the volley of facts against the project were fired.
On June 26, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Orange County Planning Commission had voted to recommend a special use permit for a Wal-Mart superstore one quarter mile from the Wilderness battlefield, the site of the first clash between Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant in 1864. An estimated 160,000 troops fought at the Wilderness. Before the end of the two day confrontation, as many as 29,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured. According to the Friends of the Wilderness, the battle was a tactical draw.
But Wal-Mart opponents do not intend to end this case with a tactical draw. A lawsuit was filed in late September to push the 138,000 s.f. Wal-Mart out of The Wilderness. Wal-Mart marched by the Planning Commission on a narrow 5-4 vote. The developer JDC Ventures needed a special permit for the 51.6-acre development. The Wal-Mart store is more than twice the threshold of 60,000 s.f. that requires a special permit in Orange County. That size threshold was put in place to give the County more zoning control over large scale projects.
On August 26, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Orange County Supervisors voted 4-1 to grant a special permit for the project. The Civil War Preservation Trust, which has fought the project since the first shot, called the vote a “setback for preservationists” but warned, “this battle is not over yet.” A Wal-Mart spokesman made it clear that the retailer is making its stand at the Wilderness. “Two years ago, the county decided this site was one where growth should occur,” said a company official. “We have looked at alternative sites and there are other sites but they require rezoning. There is no guarantee the county would approve another site.”
Roughly one month after the County vote, the opponents got their chance to fire back. The litigation was filed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield. In a press release dated September 23rd, the National Trust said this superstore “would harm the historic battlefield and encroach upon the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The challenge filed today asserts that the County Board of Supervisors failed to gather and consider important information about negative effects on the County, its citizens and its historic resources.”
According to the NTHP, “The County has responsibilities to protect those historic resources under Virginia law and under the County’s own Comprehensive Plan for development. Yet the Board brushed aside the concerns, objections and offers of assistance from the Governor and the Speaker of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the National Park Service, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 250 Civil War experts, and others.”
The lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of Orange County by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, and six residents who live in close proximity to the project who therefore have ‘standing’ to bring a lawsuit. “We have joined with concerned local residents to file this lawsuit challenging Orange County’s approval of Wal-Mart’s over-sized and inappropriate commercial development in order to protect the Wilderness Battlefield, National Park, and the citizens of Orange County,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s our obligation to challenge big-box development on this vulnerable site, which would compound earlier land-use planning missteps and eventually would radically urbanize the rural gateway to the National Park.”
Seven and a half months after the appeal was filed, the plaintiffs won the first skirmish. A Judge in the Orange County Circuit Court ruled that opponents have legal “standing” to move forward with their lawsuit. The Orange Board of Supervisors’ request that the lawsuit be dismissed was rejected.
The Judge has forced the National Trust out of the case, however, because it does not own property within 3 miles of the site. The Judge ruled that a huge Wal-Mart superstore raised valid concerns about increased traffic and litter. “The use of land by an establishment like Wal-Mart could have an adverse and immediate impact,” the Judge wrote.
The six neighbors who have been allowed to proceed with their case are Curtis Abel, Sheila Clark, Dwight L. Mottet and Craig Rains, all residents of Lake of the Woods, and Susan Caton, owner of Susan’s Flowers Etc. in Locust Grove; and Dale Brown, who lives in Spotsylvania County. Brown can see the project from his property, according to the Free Lance Star newspaper. The Washington, D.C. lawfirm of Arnold & Porter has taken on the case pro bono.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation was not discouraged by the Judge’s ruling. “While the National Trust will not serve as a plaintiff in this lawsuit, we are very pleased that local Orange County residents and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield will be able to challenge this Wal-Mart project that threatens a historic place they care about,” said Richard Moe, President of the Trust. “Nothing is more central to our mission than defending the rights of citizens to have such a day in court.”
The NTHP owns 2,700 acres and James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Orange County, Virginia. The site of the proposed Wal-Mart is inside the historic boundaries of the Wilderness Battlefield and abuts the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, which was established by Congress 82 years ago. Elected officials in Orange County have been living so long with the Wilderness Battlefield, that they have become insensitive to its national significance to thousands of visitors from around the globe who visit the site every year.
“I cannot see how there will be any visual impact to the Wilderness Battlefield,” County Supervisor Chairman Lee Frame was quoted as saying. In fact, Frame depicted Wal-Mart as a savior for the civil war site. “I think the current proposal … is the best way to protect the battlefield.”
His position ran counter to a long list of historians and dignitaries, including Civil War filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Robert Duvall, Virginia Governor. Timothy Kaine, and Congressmen from Vermont and Texas, representing the soldiers from both states who lost their lives at the Wilderness.
Richard Moe told the media after the Planning Commission’s first vote that their decision “ignores alternate available sites in Orange County, the many local and national voices raised in opposition, and the sanctity of this historic site.” One Orange County builder offered to sell Wal-Mart 75 acres of land along Route 3 for the superstore.
The Wilderness battleground has become a national flashpoint for sprawl. “The question for Wal-Mart, one of the world’s most successful corporations, is whether they need a fifth Wal-Mart within 20 miles to be sited on this ‘cathedral of suffering,'” said Vermont Congressman Peter Welch.
Actor Robert Duvall expressed a similar sentiment. “I believe in capitalism, but I believe in capitalism coupled with sensitivity. Sensitivity towards historical events and the feelings of the people of this whole area.” Duvall offered to “graciously chase out” Wal-Mart from the Wilderness site.
Sprawl-Busters reported last June that three of the five County supervisors supported the Wal-Mart plan. There is almost nowhere in America that needs another Wal-Mart, and Orange County, Virginia is no exception. There are already four Wal-Marts within 20-miles of The Wilderness. The Civil War Preservation Trust says Wal-Mart should pick sites that do not “harm hallowed ground where Americans laid down their lives.” A ‘Wilderness Wal-Mart,’ the CWPT says, would add thousands of extra cars through and around the national park — and lead to “an explosion of sprawl that could engulf the existing battlefield. A ‘Wilderness Wal-Mart’ would wreck the unique character of the existing battlefield park and countryside, and shatter the “reverent atmosphere” that surrounds one of America’s bloodiest battlefields.
Readers are urged to contact the Civil War Preservation Trust at http://www.civilwar.org/take-action/ and make a donation with this message: “Dear Jim Lighthizer, I urge the CWPT to use my contribution to help pay for traffic and other experts to overturn the vote of the Orange County Supervisors. This battlefield is beyond real estate speculation. It is a priceless piece of land. Such a large-scale development is incompatible next to a National Park. Orange County is already saturated with big box stores.
All Americans are invested in the history contained within the fields of The Wilderness. This is more important to protect than another venue for Wal-Mart shoppers. The Wilderness, like George Washington’s Ferry Farm before it, should not be compromised for a company that is already over-built in your area. The net impact of a superstore in economic terms of jobs can be negative, because of the related businesses that will go under. Please continue to speak out against this Wal-Mart, and push the legal case as hard and as long as you can.”