- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

ORANGE, Va. | The National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources warned Orange County planning officials this week that allowing a Wal-Mart supercenter to be built near a significant Civil War battlefield would irrevocably carve into the historic site.

During a nearly four-hour meeting Thursday, Orange County officials listened to the impassioned pleas but fired back questions about what they should do with historically significant land that happens to be privately owned and zoned for commercial use.

At issue is the retail giant’s plan to build a 138,000-square-foot store less than one mile from the Wilderness Battlefield in Locust Grove, where Union and Confederate forces suffered about 29,000 casualties 145 years ago.

Planning officials put off a vote on whether to recommend that the county Board of Supervisors grant the company a special-use permit until they could get more information at a June 25 special meeting. Although no vote is guaranteed then, most of the 10 members said they wanted to get the issue resolved by the end of the month.

Wal-Mart representatives - at least eight of whom were scattered among the 40-member crowd - said studies have found that the area where the retailer hopes to build was not the site of any combat or military hospitals during the two-day conflict where Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first met in battle.

Bob Carter of the Department of Historic Resources said even if no blood was shed in that area it is significant because it is where Union support functions took place.

“This is part of the battlefield,” he said. “It’s part of that landscape.”

“It’s not something you’re going to be able to reverse,” he warned commissioners.

John Kennessy of the National Park Service said the area where the supercenter would be built is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but the landowner has not asked that it get that designation. He said putting a Wal-Mart near the battlefield and the national park that encompasses it would amount to establishing a small city right beside it.

“This will be the first of a thousand cuts that will in 20, 30, 40 years transform the Wilderness Battlefield,” he said.

Some commissioners countered that the property is privately owned and has been zoned for commercial use since 1973 and that the property owner has the right to sell it. They asked the agencies why they didn’t so adamantly oppose building when fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and strip malls were erected in the same area.

“Where were you then?” asked Commissioner Donald Brooks.

The planning commission hosted a four-hour public hearing in May, where opponents outnumbered supporters 2-to-1 among the more than 70 speakers. More than 200 people jammed into a local school gymnasium for the meeting.

Opponents say Wal-Mart should build elsewhere in the county, located 60 miles southwest of the District. Supporters say it would bring much-needed jobs - the company says it would create 300 - and more shopping options.

Wal-Mart has argued that it would not bring any undue traffic or disruption to the site. Company officials say they have looked at alternative sites nearby, but the disputed area along Route 3 is the best option.

The company has agreed to design elements that would decrease the megastore’s impact and also has promised to set aside 17 acres on the property for conservation.

“We’ve tried to design a site and a project that we think is very respectful of that unique location that we have there,” one of Wal-Mart’s attorneys, Thomas Kleine, told the board.

In addition to local opposition, 250 historians, congressmen, activists and actor Robert Duvall, a Lee descendant, have rallied against the proposal.

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