- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

RICHMOND | Preservationists and local residents filed a legal challenge Wednesday to block construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter near a famed battlefield where the Civil War began to turn in favor of the North.

The legal action is aimed at an Aug. 25 vote by the Orange County Board of Supervisors approving the store near the Wilderness Battlefield.

The battlefield, where 30,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were injured or killed 145 years ago, is considered one of the nation’s most endangered Civil War sites, according to preservationists.

The suit contends that supervisors “brushed aside” mounting concerns about the negative impact the store would have on the battlefield and approved the special-use permit Wal-Mart needed to build the big box store. The vote was 4-1.

“A nationally significant and highly vulnerable historic site is at great risk,” said Zann Nelson, president of Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, one of the preservation groups challenging the vote.

“The Wal-Mart project would irrevocably harm the battlefield and seriously undermine the visitor’s experience to the National Park,” she said in a statement accompanying the filing.

Supervisors who had not seen the challenge did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment on the suit, filed in Orange County Circuit Court. They have 21 days to file a response with the court.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. described the legal challenge as having “no merit or basis in fact.”

“Throughout this entire process we have not only met but exceeded the guidelines that were put before us,” said Keith Morris, a spokesman for the world’s biggest retailer.

He said site work had not yet begun on the 138,000-square-foot store in Locust Grove, which is about 50 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

In addition to Friends of Wilderness, the challenge includes the National Trust for Historic Preservation and six residents of Orange and Spotsylvania counties who live near the planned store site. The 41-page filing is part legal document and part history lesson.

It begins the challenge by quoting Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, who wrote: “The Battle of the Wilderness was a great turning point in the Civil War - the first clash between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant and the beginning of the end for the beleaguered Confederacy.”

The suit asks the court to declare the supervisors’ vote “unlawful and invalid” and to block any further county action on Wal-Mart’s site plan.

In a state with more key Civil War battlefields than any other, Wal-Mart’s proposed store stirred up a spirited protest that enlisted the names of 250 historians and the filmmaker Ken Burns.

Opponents also included celebrities such as Robert Duvall, Gov. Tim Kaine, and congressmen from Texas and Vermont, states that lost an inordinate number of men in the fighting.

In May 1864, 180,000 Union and Confederate soldiers fought at the Wilderness, which began a series of battles that brought an end to the Civil War one year later.

Residents and supervisors who supported the store said it would not diminish an area that already has two strip malls. They welcomed the hundreds of jobs the store would bring to the rural community, the shopping option and the estimated $800,000 annually in tax revenue for the county of approximately 32,000.

Wal-Mart, which has 8,000 stores worldwide and adds about 240 each year, argued that the site is zoned for commercial use and the store would not be within sight of the battlefield’s 2,700 protected acres.

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