Foes clash once more at the Wilderness

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The latest battle of the Wilderness was hard fought but spilled no blood. While the 1864 battle pitted Lee vs. Grant, the antagonists this time were Wal-Mart and preservationists.

Wal-Mart wants to build a 133,481-square-foot store in the Locust Grove area of Orange County near the Wilderness Battlefield and National Park. The land had been zoned for commercial use for decades, but the company needed a special permit from the county because of the size of the store. Wal-Mart’s bid was supported by many Orange County residents who argued that the store would create jobs and tax revenue while offering shoppers more convenience.

Vigorously contesting the proposal was a coalition of preservation and environmental groups plus more than 250 historians. The opponents included Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and actor Robert Duvall. They argued that the site is actually part of the original battlefield. Opponents also believe that the store and other development it might generate will detract from the preservation of a place where nearly 29,000 Americans were killed or wounded.

In a final hearing on the issue in August, more than 100 people line up to speak, and a majority of them supported Wal-Mart. The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to permit the company to build the store.

Barbara Bannar, executive director of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, defined the dispute as a question of private property rights. “So many people are upset because the land in question is being stated as ‘part of the battlefield’ when in fact it is privately owned land and rather a bit of a distance from the actual ‘corner’ of the buffer for the battlefield,” she says.

A month after the supervisors’ vote, preservationists and some Orange residents filed suit to block construction of the store. The suit alleges that the supervisors failed to gather and consider information about the effects of the store on county and its historic resources. Wal-Mart descirbed the suit as having “no merit or basis in fact.”

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