Cynics will tell you that Americans have the best politics money can buy. But Wal-Mart’s money doesn’t always buy support — especially in a controversial vote that pits history against sprawl. Wal-Mart says its plan to build a 138,000 s.f. superstore near an historic Civil War battlefield near Fredericksburg, Virginia is an example of smart growth. The giant retailer was on the defensive this past week, when Virginia Governor Tim Kaine reached across the political aisle to his rival, Republican House Speaker Bill Howell, to jointly write a letter to the Orange County, Virginia Board of Supervisors urging them to work together with Wal-Mart and state officials to find a less intrusive site for the superstore. In response to the Governor’s letter, Wal-Mart officials defended their plan. The company’s director of public affairs sent an email to the local media which pointed out that the land is commercially zoned, and that “more than 5,000 residential homes and other compatible commercial development are already built out dramatically closer to the preserved boundaries of the Wilderness Battlefield than our project.” But the company went even further, suggesting that “this project presents the unique opportunity to bring the interests of battlefield preservation and smart development effectively into balance, and that is precisely what we have accomplished with our current proposal.” Wal-Mart did not explain how a 51 acre development with a store on one level more than twice the size of a football field and an enormous parking lot was an example of “smart development.” In their letter last week, Governor Kaine and Speaker Howell said that preservation of the Wilderness battlefield was “supremely important.” The top-ranking elected officials urge the County Supervisors to help “find an appropriate alternate site for the proposed retail center in the vicinity of the proposed site yet situated outside the boundaries of Wilderness Battlefield and out of view from the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.” Wal-Mart says they have looked at other sites, but only the site near the battlefield meets their specifications for size, accessibility, and commercial zoning. Wal-Mart has often pitched stores on land that is not commercially zoned, and given the state interest in protecting this site, it is likely that some alternative location could be negotiated. The Orange County Planning Commission in a 5-4 split vote has already weighed in on the side of Wal-Mart, and a majority of the County Supervisors have also voiced support for the superstore. A spokesman for the Governor admitted that the decision on the battlefield store was up to local authorities. “It’s an issue between Wal-Mart and the localities. What the state can do is, they can offer some expertise and they can offer some negotiating help,” a spokesman for the Governor told the Free Lance Star newspaper. “Battlefield preservation is important to the governor. So is business and jobs. What he wants to see is that this all works out so Wal-Mart can build without impacting the battlefield.” The Chairman of the County Supervisors appeared caught off guard by the Governor’s letter. “This was not something the board was expecting,” he told the Star. On Monday, July 27 the Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the special-use permit application, and is expected to take a final vote on the project the following evening at their regularly meeting. The Supervisors did not warm up to the Governor’s letter, noting that the Supervisors feel they cannot tell private landowners how to use their land. The issue for some supervisors has become a partisan politics battle. Governor Kaine is the current Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “The Democrats don’t have much respect for property rights,” one Supervisor said. “And the preservationists don’t have much credibility.” Another supervisor said, “I was surprised Tuesday when I received a joint letter from Gov. Kaine and Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Howell… While I am gratified that Mr. Kaine and Mr. Howell have come together in a bipartisan effort, I would much prefer that they concentrate their new-found synergy on solving Virginia’s massive transportation problems, full funding of all state mandates and respectful concern for each taxpayer. I am pleased that Mr. Kaine and Mr. Howell have however affirmed their belief that land use decisions are ultimately best made at the local level and I am confident that their belief will be rewarded and enhanced by the conclusion of the Walmart special use permit process.” Wal-Mart apparently is not getting its money’s worth from a financial contribution it made to the Governor. The retailer wasted no time getting a check into the Governor’s coffers. On the day he was inaugurated, Governor Kaine received a $5,000 contribution from Wal-Mart. Kaine’s staff made it clear that Wal-Mart’s contribution would not sway the Governor’s decisions. “Not a single donation that we take has ever had an influence on any of his policies,” said a spokesman for the Governor’s political action committee. (In 2006, Wal-Mart became the No. 1 corporate political contributor at the federal level, giving $943,455 in the 2006 election cycle, according to Business Week.) The same Supervisor said, “I’m disappointed that [Kaine and Howell] would take their position without discussing it with the Orange County supervisors and getting all the details on the project. It looks like most of the letter came out of a preservationist group’s press release.” But Supervisor Teri Pace told The Associated Press it would be “disappointing to not accept such a generous offer from the state” to help find a new site. She called the Governor’s letter an opportunity to “promote and enhance our future economic prosperity.” Speaker Howell, for his part, told the Free Lance Star, “The governor and I both very clearly realize this is a local prerogative. We’re not coming in and saying, ‘You’ve got to do this or that.’ Both of us, and I think we speak for large constituencies, feel very strongly about land preservation.” Political observers in Virginia expect that Wal-Mat will get its special use permit next week — but the Supervisors vote will surely lead to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting.
In 1996, Sprawl-Busters was invited to travel to Virginia to speak at a rally against a plan to build a Wal-Mart discount store on the banks of the Rappahannock river, at the site of George Washington’s boyhood home, Ferry Farm. The site was not much more than a cellar hole at the time, but the property had important national historic value. The invitation to speak came from Cessie Howell, who is the wife of Speaker Howell. Mrs. Howell led an effort by local residents to push Wal-Mart off the Ferry Farm site. The land was purchased from Wal-Mart by the George Washington Foundation, and in return Wal-Mart was quickly permitted to build a store roughly one mile away from the George Washington site. One group that praised the Governor’s recent letter was the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, an ad hoc group which has formed to fight the project, and has attracted celebrity support from actor Robert Duvall. The Coalition, in reaction to the Governor’s letter said, “We firmly believe that encouraging Wal-Mart to move to an alternative location is in the best interests of both the National Park and Orange County residents. We are prepared to work with the Commonwealth, the county, Wal-Mart and local citizens to find an alternative location that benefits all.” Readers are urged to email the following 4 Orange County Supervisors who are likely to vote for this project: Chairman Lee Frame at: [email protected]; Vice Chairman Teel Goodwin at: [email protected]; Mark Johnson at: [email protected]; Zack Burkett at: [email protected]ecountyva.gov with the following message; “Dear Supervisors, I know you think Governor Kaine has no right sticking his office into your local land use debate — but the Wilderness Battlefield is not just a possession of Orange County. Americans from many cities and towns across the nation died on that hallowed ground, and the idea of a Wal-Mart superstore encroaching on that spot is a defamation of what that battlefield means to this nation. It’s not a matter of being able to ‘see’ the lights of the store from the site — it’s about the character of the place and its surroundings. You cannot hide a store twice the size of a football field. It is not as if the area has no Wal-Marts already. In the Ferry Farm debate, Wal-Mart was pressured to move down the road — and they did. You have the power to deny the special use permit. This is not an ‘as of right’ proposal. You have the latitude to rule that the site has an adverse impact on the historic abutting properties. Even on commercially zoned land, the courts across the nation have ruled that local officials can deny projects that do not satisfiy special use permit criteria. Wal-Mart can afford to find a less controversial location. Take the Governor up on his offer, and ask the state to help Wal-Mart find another site. If you let this store be built, the thousands of visitors who come to this site will ask themselves: ‘Who allowed this to happen so close to a monumental piece of history?’ They may tell their friends not to bother with a visit. Don’t let Wal-Mart buy and sell our history as if it were some cheap piece of Chinese underwear. Make them continue searching for a more appropriate site.”