The first shot has been fired by public officials in what has become a bloody public relations war for the Wal-Mart corporation. Last night, by one vote, the Orange County, Virginia Planning Commission voted to recommend a special use permit for one of the most controversial Wal-Mart proposals in the nation — one quarter mile from the infamous Wilderness civil war battlefield. Although this vote went in Wal-Mart’s favor, the sprawling superstore still faces its final vote. On November 2, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had a civil war on its hands. One hundred and fifty four years after one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Wal-Mart has provoked another battle near the site of the infamous Battle of the Wilderness in Orange County, Virginia. Back in the mid 1990s, Sprawl-Busters traveled to Fredericksburg, Virginia to help residents fight off a proposed Wal-Mart on the site of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s boyhood home. Preservationists won the battle for Ferry Farm, and Wal-Mart took flak from the national media coverage of its attempt to build on the historic parcel. Now the giant retailer is back in Virginia, upsetting people once more with its historically-insensitive land deal. The Battle of the Wilderness was fought in 1864. It is remembered as one of the most significant battles of the Civil War — the first clash between Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Over a two day period, bloody fighting raged along the Orange Turnpike (now Route 20) and the Orange Plank Road. An estimated 160,000 troops fought at the Wilderness. The Confederate Army and the Union suffered heavy losses. Before the end of the 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 the Battle of the Wilderness marked the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. Today, with Wal-Mart amassing its public relations troops in Orange County, local residents will not accept a “tactical draw,” and have organized to push the 138,000 s.f. Wal-Mart out of The Wilderness. On May 30, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the actual Planning Commission hearings on the Wal-Mart Wilderness project had begun. According to the Orange News, 75- people spoke at the hearing. Opponents said the proposed site posed a threat to historic resources, could cause environmental damage, create traffic problems, raise crime and have an adverse impact on smaller retailers. They said tourism near the battlefield was a more appropriate form of economic development for the area than a big box store. “We’ve got Wal-Marts all over the place,” one Orange County resident testified, “but we’ve only got one battlefield.” Preservation of the battlefield is a feature in the county’s comprehensive land use plan. One resident in support of the superstore said, “The county needs the shopping opportunities in Orange. We need the jobs in Orange. We need the impressive tax revenue.” The jobs argument ended up being the critical issue last night. The Planning Commission voted 5-4 to recommend that the Board of Supervisors approve a proposal by developer JDC Ventures for the 51.6-acre commercial development. JDC needs the special permit because its 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. Commission Chairman Will Likins told his colleagues that although he doesn’t like Wal-Mart per se, Orange County needs the tax revenue and jobs the store will provide. Wal-Mart had been asked by the Commission to prepare an economic impact study, which they presented last night. Not surprisingly, the study paid for by Wal-Mart concluded that the entire development, including Wal-Mart, will produce $800,000 in local taxes per year, and 622 jobs. A similar study produced by Wal-Mart months ago reached the same conclusion, showing the retail store alone would ‘create’ 300 jobs. But Planning Commissioner Nigel Goodwin understood Wal-Mart’s fuzzy math. “There’s no guarantee that this is going to be a net revenue generator for Orange County,” Goodwin warned. Wal-Mart studies always present gross job claims, never the net impact showing how many jobs will die as a result of the competitive shake-out that follows Wal-Mart everywhere. During the hearing, Wal-Mart responded to concerns about public safety and crime at the store by estimating that the superstore would require local police to make 400 visits to the store per year. One Commissioner urged Wal-Mart to give the Sheriff’s Office $325,000 annually to help cover the added burden of police costs at this site. Wal-Mart said it would provide for one round the clock security patrol at the store, but offered no further public support. The Commissioners’ vote is just a recommendation that now travels to the final arbiters, the Orange County Supervisors, which will hold a hearing of its own. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Free Lance-Star that the project still has a long way to go.
Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told the media that “the commission’s approval ignores alternate available sites in Orange County, the many local and national voices raised in opposition, and the sanctity of this historic site.” In fact, one Orange County builder has offered to sell Wal-Mart 75 acres of land along Route 3 for the superstore. The landowner said his property has plenty of room for a Wal-Mart, and would not threaten the Wilderness. But Wal-Mart said the land is not properly zoned, and that the Wilderness site is the only parcel that meets all of the company’s needs — despite the public outcry over their choice. The Wilderness battleground has become a national flashpoint for sprawl. Prominent politicians and entertainers from beyond Virginia have taken up the battle against Wal-Mart. “We don’t want Wal-Mart putting asphalt over the graves of the young men that died in the Wilderness battlefield,” Texas Congressman Ted Poe told a news conference in early May, one day before the 145 year anniversary of day of the bloody battle. Hosted by nine preservation groups united as the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, the press conference commemorated the battle and reminded the public of the danger to the preservation of that battlefield posed by Wal-Mart’s superstore. “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. “The deadliest day in the history of the state of Vermont was here,” he said. 1,234 Vermonters died in the two-day fight at the Wilderness. According to the Civil War News, Texans in the Army of Northern Virginia fought the Vermonters from the Army of the Potomac. Poe said he and Welch don’t agree on many political issues. “One thing we both agree on,” he stressed, “is that this battlefield will be preserved.” The Congressmen were joined by actor Robert Duvall who offered to do “whatever I can do to help.” Duvall, who lives on a farm in Fauquier County, Virginia, is a descendant of Robert E. Lee. Duvall played General Lee in the 2003 film “Gods and Generals.” “I believe in capitalism, but I believe in capitalism coupled with sensitivity,” Duvall told the media. “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. It has been reported that three of the five County supervisors support 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.” The group notes that “despite the struggling economy, some developers and companies have deep enough pockets to keep chugging right along, and they always seem to cast their insidious glances at the scenic, historic land on or around America’s Civil War battlefields.” CWPT considers The Wilderness to be a “national shrine . . . a monument to American valor, determination and courage, and one of the places where the Civil War — and the nation — changed forever.” Not exactly where Wal-Mart needs to sell more cheap underwear and MP3 players. Today nearly 2,800 acres of the Wilderness Battlefield are preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. 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 email the Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman, R. Mark Johnson, at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Johnson, I am opposed to the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter near the Wilderness Battlefield. Your Planning Commission was clearly split on the issue. You can’t buy civil war history on any Wal-Mart shelf — but once they take it from us — we can’t buy it back at any price. This hallowed battlefield is beyond real estate speculation. It is a priceless piece of land. The proposed store is within the historic limits of the battlefield. The Wal-Mart, which is two and a half times the size of a football field — not counting the enormous asphalt parking lot — will increase development pressures on the National Park. Such a large-scale development is incompatible next to a National Park. Orange County is already saturated with big box stores. There are 4 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of The Wilderness. 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. As it says in the Orange County Comprehensive Plan, ‘Orange County is also a largely rural county with a desire to control growth in order to preserve its rural qualities.’ The Route 20 Corridor Study says ‘These recommendations will provide additional teeth to regulations to discourage strip development and they will preserve the rural look of the corridor by requiring setbacks.’ Wal-Mart is the kind of highway-oriented strip development that will destroy the rural look and character of your region. This project is incompatible with corridor preservation plans. It’s up to the Board of Supervisors to protect historically sensitive areas. The Wilderness, like Ferry Farm before it, should not be compromised for a company that is already over-built in your area. The Planning Commission mistakenly believes this is a jobs and revenue development. That’s not an accurate understanding of what retail does to the local economy. The net impact of a superstore in terms of jobs can be negative, because of the related businesses that will go under. The Chairman of the Commission cited jobs as his major reason to vote yes — but the jobs argument is voodoo economics at best. I urge you: send Wal-Mart back out of the Wilderness.”