The Wilderness Battle in Orange County, Virginia may have been hard for Union or Confederate troops to predict — but the outcome of the Wal-Mart battle near the Wilderness Battlefield 145 years later was never in doubt. On June 26, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported the first major skirmish results, when the Orange County 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 victory went in Wal-Mart’s favor, the sprawling superstore still had to fight another battle at the County Supervisors level. 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. Opponents say the proposed site poses 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 is 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 at the Planning Commission, “but we’ve only got one battlefield.” Preservation of the battlefield is a feature in the county’s comprehensive land use plan. 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. Wal-Mart had been asked by the Commission to prepare an economic impact study, which not surprisingly concluded that the entire development, including Wal-Mart, would produce $800,000 in local taxes per year, and 622 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. This week, the battle moved to the County Supervisors, many of whom had already expressed their support for the project in media statements. So their 4-1 vote to grant a special permit was scripted. After the Supervisors filed their shot, the opponents shot back. In a statement released one day after the vote, the Civil War Preservation Trust called the vote was a “setback for preservationists” but warned, “this battle is not over yet.” Jim Lighthizer, head of the CWPT suggested that Wal-Mart should reconsider its plan, and said the company’s inability to appreciate historical sites had aroused “nationwide anger generated by its proposal.” “The ball is now in Wal-mart’s court. It’s in the corporation’s best interest to work with the preservation community to find an alternative site. …We are optimistic that company officials will see the wisdom of moving somewhere else.” But a Wal-Mart spokesman made it clear that Wal-Mart 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.” With Wal-Mart digging in its heels, the County’s vote this week is likely to lead to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting.
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 that lost their lives at the Wilderness. Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 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 in 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.” 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 contact the Civil War Preservation Trust at http://www.civilwar.org/take-action/ and email them a donation with this message: “Dear Jim Lighthizer, I urge the CWPT to go to court to overturn the vote of the Orange County Commissioners. 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 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. I urge you: send Wal-Mart back out of the Wilderness.”