- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last night deferred a decision on whether to allow a developer to build homes on land that Civil War preservationists contend was once a historic fort.

More than two dozen Civil War historians and preservation activists argued that the 7.81-acre lot at the intersection of Wharton Lane and Mount Gilead Road in Centreville was historically significant and should be protected from a developer who wants to build 47 detached single-family homes that would sell for more than $400,000 each.

The site includes a line of earthworks hand-dug dirt walls about eight feet high with trenches at their base that were initially constructed to provide cover for Confederate soldiers protecting Centreville from Union attack.

"You would have to argue that they have some significance," said Edwin C. Bearss, the former chief historian for the National Park Service. "They have considerable significance on the national scale, and they are a very endangered resource because most have disappeared in the last 30 years."

Mr. Bearss estimated that 90 percent of the site's earthworks already have been destroyed by construction or erosion, most in the past 30 years.

Developer Stanley-Martin acquired the land last year. The planned development calls for preserving a 1-acre plot around the earthworks, a spokesman for the developer told the board last night. He said company representatives had walked the site "on several occasions" with county officials and pledged to take steps to preserve the historic property.

The company said its evidence suggests the site it plans to build on was never a fort. It has committed to preserving the 1-acre tract around the earthworks for a county park.

"This plan is about preservation," Stanley-Martin President Steven B. Alloy told the board. "What we are doing in this plan is taking the Civil War earthworks out of private hands and putting them in the hands of the Fairfax County parks system."

But a coalition of Civil War preservationists and community groups has opposed the development. Much of the debate focused on 10 of the houses that would be built on land that overlaps a county historic district.

"I don't believe you can simply save the artifact save the structure and then essentially destroy the land around it," historian Brian Pohanka said. "It should exist in some sort of integrity to the site."

Twice, in January and again last month, the Fairfax County board put off public discussion on the subject. The board will vote on the proposed development April 8.

Much of the discussion last night focused on the historical and cultural value of the land of Fairfax County.

About 30 miles southwest of the District, the earthworks were constructed by the Confederate army in the winter of 1861-1862 as part of a line of defense for the city of Centreville.

But in March 1862, the Confederate army abandoned the position, and the Union army "refaced" the earthworks and used them for their own defense for the duration of the war.

Mr. Bearss called the site "very important in interpreting the first winter of the war."

In addition to giving the Confederate army a major presence within a day's march of Washington, the Southern troops' use of "Quaker guns" wood fashioned to look like cannons kept the Union army at bay and ultimately compromised Gen. George McLellan's credibility with the Lincoln administration.

The plan to preserve the earthworks while building large homes around it didn't satisfy preservationist John McAnaw of the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable.

"The issue is much greater than just the earthworks," Mr. McAnaw said, noting that the vista provides context. "These are important but they're only part of a larger whole."

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