FREDERICKSBURG, Va. Skirmishes between developers and Civil War buffs seeking to preserve battlefields are common in rapidly growing Northern Virginia, which also was the epicenter of the Civil War.
But now a full-fledged national battle has erupted over a proposal to build a new town called Chancellorsville on the land that gave Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee his greatest victory.
“This is not somebody’s garden back yard. This is a piece of land of national significance,” said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, which has worked to preserve 15,000 acres of Civil War battlefield over the years.
Preservationists from around the country have unleashed 10,000 letters, phone calls and e-mails on Spotsylvania County’s seven-member board, which is to make the final decision on the development early this year.
“Chancellorsville is a national name, right up there with Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg,” said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the trust. “A lot of times people become involved in these fights because of environmental concerns. In this case, both locally and nationally, a lot of people are involved because of the history.”
Last month, voters in the county district that includes the battlefield elected a new supervisor who opposes the development. He won with 64 percent of the vote and says the development was “absolutely the overriding issue.”
“Nationally, the issue is preservation of the battlefield,” Mr. Campi said. “Locally, the issue is quality of life. We just don’t have the water capacity, we don’t have the road capacity to support this development.”
The 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville is a textbook example of military ingenuity: Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf cited the battle as inspiration for his plans during the Persian Gulf war. Gen. Lee’s outnumbered troops whipped Union forces in a three-day battle that resulted in 30,000 casualties on both sides. Among them was Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who died after his own troops accidentally shot him.
The victory emboldened Gen. Lee to invade Union territory, leading to his defeat at Gettysburg a few months later.
Developer Ray Smith of Dogwood Development Group in Reston initially proposed a 2,350-home development with about 2 million square feet of commercial space roughly the equivalent of 10 Wal-Mart stores on an 800-acre parcel. He since has scaled back his plans to include 1,995 homes.
The development is proposed for land next to the existing national park that preserves land from the Chancellorsville battlefield and from other nearby battles, including Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Wilderness.
There is no current town of Chancellorsville, nor has there ever been. In 1863, Chancellorsville was merely a crossroads and a tavern. But Mr. Smith envisions his new town looking like those that dotted Virginia in Civil War times self-sufficient, with residents living in homes inspired by 19th-century architecture, able to walk to schools and shops in a town center.
The development would include three hotels and other tourist-friendly amenities that Mr. Smith says would boost attendance at the existing national battlefield park, which has declined in recent years.
Mr. Smith said his plans also would preserve about 55 acres that are the most historically significant and turn them into a battlefield park. Under existing zoning, that portion of the land is zoned for commercial development.
“The preservationists have stirred people up, but I’m not quite sure why,” Mr. Smith said. “Where the fighting happened, we’re preserving it.”
Mr. Lighthizer accused Mr. Smith of distorting history to make his development sound more palatable. He said the new town would overwhelm the scene of the first day of fighting, put the existing national park under further development pressure and spoil scenic views.
Mr. Lighthizer’s group commissioned a poll that showed that 66 percent of county residents opposed the development. A public hearing last month drew more than 300 people; speakers were equally divided between supporters and detractors.
Mr. Smith disputed the poll’s findings. He said the majority of residents support his project because of the potential to add millions of dollars to the tax base of a county that is growing rapidly and needs to pay for new schools and other services demanded by residents.
Sandy Rives, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said park officials are concerned that the development will increase traffic on a busy highway that cuts through the battlefield, a fear Mr. Smith says is unfounded.
But Mr. Rives said he is optimistic that both sides can reach a solution.
“Are there ways the project can continue and the battlefield can be protected?” he asked. “I think there is a way to figure something out.”