Victory at Wilderness Battlefield

In a dramatic win for historic preservation, after three years of controversy, Walmart has dropped its plans to build a Supercenter at the edge of Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County. On the first day of a court case contesting Orange County’s decision to approve the big-box store, Walmart made a surprise announcement — that it had reversed its course, deciding not to build on the historic property but to preserve it.

Walmart also stated that it plans to pursue an alternate location for an Orange County store, a solution that PEC and our preservationist partners have advocated throughout the debate.

PEC’s Dan Holmes says, “All along, we have been urging Walmart and Orange County to look for a win-win solution that balances economic development goals with preservation of historic resources. Now, with the Walmart site apparently saved, PEC and our partners are turning to the question of how we can strike this balance on a larger scale, and preserve more of the gateway to this major Civil War site.”

PEC was one of the first groups to call attention to an alarming proposal, in 2008, to build a shopping center with a Walmart as its anchor store, at the intersection of Rt. 3 and Rt. 20, on the edge of Wilderness Battlefield. The 52-acre proposed Walmart site is adjacent to the national battlefield park, and it played an important role in the 1864 battle, in which 29,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in brutal fighting among the burning woods and brush. It was at The Wilderness that General Lee and General Grant first met, and the battle proved pivotal, marking the beginning of the Union dominance that brought the Civil War to an end one year later.

Supercenter on hallowed ground?

During the battle, the Walmart site was part of what Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson describes as the “nerve center” of the northern Army. Jim Campi, a spokesperson for Civil War Trust, says, “This property is so important to telling the story of the Wilderness Battlefield… In a lot of ways, this is where the decisions were made, to determine who was going to live and who was going to die, who was going to fight and how the battle would ultimately be decided.”

In addition, sprawling commercial development would dramatically impact the experience of visitors to the national battlefield park. Wilderness Battlefield is the most visited tourist destination in Orange County, drawing 170,000 visitors each year. Mr. Campi says, “Right now, as you drive out Rt. 3 from Fredericksbug, except for a small amount of development at the intersection, the view you’re getting is very much like they would have had at the time of the Civil War. And that’s what visitors want to see. Visitors are looking for authenticity. They’re looking to be transported back in time.”

PEC and eight other preservation organizations, ranging from local to national, formed the Wilderness Coalition to protect the battlefield. PEC brought to the cause our extensive experience on local land-use issues and connection to Orange County citizens. In 2008, PEC sent a Clarion newsletter to all homes in Orange about the development threat, and, throughout the contentious public debate, we continued to communicate with local citizens and decision-makers about solutions. PEC was instrumental in identifying alternative sites that could accommodate the development.

Meanwhile, as the Walmart at The Wilderness became a national priority for preservationists, the story sparked a blaze of media attention. Over 250 historians, including David McCullough, James McPherson and Ken Burns, urged that the store move to an alternate site. Congressmen from Texas and Vermont called for respect for the hallowed ground where regiments from their states had suffered heavy losses. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Civil War Trust both listed Wilderness Battlefield as one of the nation’s most endangered historic sites.

Still, Orange County approved the special use permit for the big box store in August of 2009. Historic preservationists went on to challenge this decision in court. With Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and six local landowners as plaintiffs, a strong case was built that Orange County had acted improperly — among other ways, by disregarding evidence of the site’s historic significance and by holding a Planning Commission vote at an illegal, unpublicized meeting. Two PEC staff members were to testify as expert witnesses.

But on the day the trial was to begin, January 26, 2011, the judge read the following statement from Walmart: We have decided to preserve the property near the Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County, Virginia, that was approved by the Board of Supervisors for a new store. We will still buy the land, but not develop it. We appreciate Orange County’s business-friendly nature, and we are committed to building a store in the county to serve customers in this area. We look forward to beginning talks within the next 30 days about a new site along the Route 3 corridor.

A successful coalition

Mr. Campi of Civil War Trust says that the timing surprised him, but that Walmart’s decision made sense. Preservationists had been urging the company all along to choose an alternate site, which he says was a good solution “from a preservation perspective, but also from a business perspective.”
While there was persuasion, there was also pressure. Craig Rains, a Lake of the Woods resident who is a member of numerous preservation organizations and a volunteer at the battlefield, says, “I think that they finally decided that we had a solid case… Rather than have those issues drug out over several days in court, they decided it was in their best interests, PR-wise, not to go to court.”

Mr. Holmes, of PEC says, “It took the strength of the whole coalition working on numerous fronts, to convince Walmart, ultimately, to do the right thing.”

Mr. Campi says, “There have been few grassroots efforts that I’ve been involved in where it was such a team effort that everyone was carrying a significant part of the load. PEC’s knowledge and expertise in this field is just unmatched, and without PEC, none of this would have happened.”

The members of the Wilderness Coalition include:

* Civil War Trust
* Central Virginia Battlefields Trust
* Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields
* Friends of Wilderness Battlefield
* National Coalition for History
* National Parks Conservation Association
* National Trust for Historic Preservation
* Piedmont Environmental Council
* Preservation Virginia

While Walmart has promised to preserve the 52-acre site in question, an underlying problem remains, leaving much of the gateway to Wilderness Battlefield vulnerable to development. The problem is that Orange County’s Comprehensive Plan calls for extensive development along the length of Rt. 3, past the battlefield. Over 2,500 acres of land along Rt. 3 that are currently zoned agricultural are recommended on the county’s Future Land Use map for either Mixed Use or Economic Development.

Gateway to The Wilderness–or corridor for development?

The Walmart threat arose because local planning made the site wide open for development. The land was already zoned commercial, and the project was subject to County approval only because of a big box ordinance established just before the plans were submitted.

Among other impacts, heavy development along this corridor would intensify traffic on Rt. 20 through Wilderness Battlefield and increase pressure to four-lane the road. Some development discussions have even come with a proposal to widen and realign Rt. 20 through the heart of the battlefield!

As PEC and our partners move our focus to the larger corridor, the coalition has commissioned a Gateway Visioning Plan, which will address a long-term balance between desired growth and the preservation of historic resources and rural landscapes. The plan will offer a positive vision that can help to improve local policy.

Mr. Rains says that a plan should be in place “to protect the rural beauty that we have, while at the same time fostering reasonable commercial growth, so that our quality of life out here in rural Virginia will be preserved.”

Mr. Holmes says, “What Orange County has in terms of historic resources, from Civil War battlefields to Montpelier, is unique. So, we want to fit new development into a vision that maintains this county’s distinctive identity and its economic potential as a tourist destination.”