- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Public outcry just weeks ago helped stop a huge housing development on part of the Chancellorsville battlefield. Now a local landowner’s application to develop a smaller project on the Civil War site is making its way through the federal regulatory process.

The new project includes 273 acres and does not require the landowner, Fredericksburg funeral-home director John Mullins, to seek local permits. Existing zoning gives him the right to put 225 houses and 55 acres of commercial space there.

Mullins Farm is considered part of the Chancellorsville battlefield, but preservationists have disagreed with Mr. Mullins and developers about how much of his land should be preserved and what potential projects should look like.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls projects affecting wetlands and streams, is the only agency whose permission is required for 30 of the houses to be built on land where Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson led the destruction of a Federal offensive in May 1863.

Concluding that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the landowner and preservationists, the corps has taken the unusual step of cutting short the standard mediation process.

That means the proposal is moving down the track toward approval — needing only a final, nonbinding review by a presidentially appointed historical-preservation board.

Preservation groups are outraged, having led the fight in March to defeat a housing and retail project that would have brought 2,000 houses and 1.2 million square feet of commercial space to Spotsylvania County, which has about 100,000 residents and is the country’s 13th-fastest-growing county.

The initial project, called the Town of Chancellorsville, drew national attention as residents came out in droves to public hearings to speak against rezoning the 790-acre Mullins Farm.

Chancellorsville was a pivotal Civil War battle, and the Mullins Farm is on the “most endangered” lists of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Civil War Preservation Trust — two national advocacy groups that have become involved in Northern Virginia’s growth debates.

The Mullins Farm dispute has become increasingly bitter. Mr. Mullins contends that preservation groups gave distorted information about his discussions with them.

“The truth, that’s all we ever expected, no more and no less,” he said. “That’s not what we’ve always gotten.” Mr. Mullins also said he was negotiating with developers and was “not in a position to comment.”

Preservation groups that have tried to buy the farm say he is asking $40 million for all 790 acres — about seven times its $5.6 million assessed value, and more than developers have offered to pay him.

“We know he’s talking to developers and asking them for a lot less,” said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Washington-based Civil War Preservation Trust. “He is essentially penalizing us for our interest in saving the land.”

Mr. Mullins will not name the developer behind the new proposal. Plans submitted to the corps show outlines of future roads and additional houses. The project is before the corps because roads would cross streams in six places.

Preservation groups are pushing the corps to consider Mr. Mullins’ permit application as part of a larger picture — the battlefield itself and possible future development. They say the corps is required by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act to consider the broader impact.

However, corps officials say their purview is narrower.

“We can’t go fishing around,” said Hal Wiggins of the corps’ Fredericksburg office. “We have to deal with the permit before us.”

He said the system that allows a large historic parcel to be considered in pieces is flawed but that the solution lies with local governments that could rewrite land-use plans and zoning laws, and with preservationists who could buy the land.

“The corps can’t be responsible for preserving battlefields because of a small link to a dredge-and-fill permit,” Mr. Wiggins said.

He also said Mr. Mullins has agreed to preserve a historic home on the property, donate some land near it and pay for a sign directing people to that spot. Mr. Mullins also has spoken with county officials about donating more land to memorialize the first day of the battle, though Spotsylvania County Supervisor Bob Hagan, whose Courtland district includes the Mullins Farm, said nothing specific was on the table.

The corps agrees with Mr. Mullins that its jurisdiction extends only to the areas where there are stream crossings and therefore has put the project on a general review track. Preservationists want the corps to enlarge the definition of the affected area to include all 273 acres, which would require a more elaborate review with more-detailed archaeological and environmental research.

After concluding that a compromise was unlikely, corps officials terminated mediation last week. The proposal package will go to the presidentially appointed Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which will review the permit and can make suggestions — nonbinding — to the corps.

The project as it stands meets the corps’ requirements, said Bruce Williams, chief of the agency’s regional regulatory office in Norfolk.

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