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Wal-Mart vs. Civil War site heads to court

- Associated Press - Sunday, January 23, 2011

RICHMOND (AP) — Nearly 150 years after Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fought in Northern Virginia, a conflict over the battlefield is taking shape in a courtroom.

The dispute involves whether a Walmart should be built near the Civil War site, and the case pits preservationists and some residents of a rural Northern Virginia town against the world's largest retailer and local officials who approved the Walmart Supercenter.

Both sides are scheduled to make arguments before a judge Tuesday.

The proposed Walmart is located near the site of the Battle of the Wilderness, which is viewed by historians as a critical turning point in the war. An estimated 185,000 Union and Confederate troops fought over three days in 1864, and 30,000 were killed, injured or went missing. The war ended 11 months later.

The 143,000-square-foot space planned by the Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. would be outside the limits of the protected national park where the core battlefield is located. The company has stressed the store would be within an area already dotted with retail locations and in an area zoned for commercial use.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors in August 2009 approved the special-use permit Wal-Mart needed to build, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation and residents who live within three miles of the site challenged the board's decision.

They argued, in part, that supervisors ignored or rejected the help of historians and other preservation experts when they approved the store's construction in Locust Grove, about 1 mile from the national park entrance.

Hundreds of people, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, filmmaker Ken Burns and actor Robert Duvall, have appealed to Wal-Mart to walk away and find another place to build in the county of less than 35,000 people.

Mr. McPherson is expected to testify that the store's site and nearby acres were blood-soaked ground and a Union "nerve center" in the battle. Grant's headquarters and his senior leaders were encamped near the site of the proposed store, and Union casualties were treated there or in an area destined to be the store's parking lot, Mr. McPherson wrote in a summary of his testimony.

"Among other things, thousands of wounded and dying soldiers occupied the then open fields that included the Walmart site, which is where many of the Union Army hospital tents were located during the battle," Mr. McPherson wrote.

An attorney representing Orange County argued the board and other officials acted properly and heard the opinions of hundreds of people before approving the store.

"There is no indication that any significant historical event occurred on this land," Sharon E. Pandak wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. "No state or federal law precludes development of the site."

Robert D. Rosenbaum, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he plans to call descendants of Union and Confederate soldiers to testify. The dispute resonates beyond Virginia, where most of the Civil War was fought, he said.

"As we approach the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, this case is a watershed that will demonstrate whether we as a society are really interested in protecting our national heritage," he said.

In Orange County, many residents and community leaders have welcomed the store. It would create 300 jobs and tax revenue, and there would be a convenient big-box store in the county.

A spokesman for Wal-Mart said the retailer is hopeful the court proceedings will clear the way for construction.

"We believe the board made a careful and thoughtful decision that balances historic preservation concerns with the need for economic development," spokesman Bill Wertz said.

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