Wilderness fight pitted two principles Virginians hold dear

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Print this page by Robert Powell

A big retail chain wanted to open an outlet in a small Southern community, promising to provide jobs and more consumer convenience.

Nonetheless, the company was not being greeted with unanimous acclaim. While some local residents eagerly awaited the big chain’s arrival, others opposed its plans, saying it would damage the community’s shistoric character.

This scenario sounds like the recent confrontation between Wal-Mart and Civil War preservationists in Orange County, but it took place nearly 30 years ago in Dahlonega, Ga., a small town in the North Georgia mountains that was the scene of the nation’s first major gold rush in 1828.

McDonald’s planned to open a restaurant on a mountain overlooking the picturesque town but wanted a city variance to erect a large neon sign, which “could be seen from the Appalachian Trail.” Without it, a real estate representative said, the restaurant likely wouldn’t be built.

The big sign didn’t bother many residents who thought, in addition to jobs and Big Macs, McDonald’s might open the way for more development in Dahlonega, which is about 75 miles north of Atlanta.

Others, however, were horrified. This group included Margaret Owens, who, in the 1970s, persuaded the local chamber of commerce to request a study of Dahlonega’s downtown square by University of Georgia environmental design students. That plan was used to restore the square to its 19th century appearance. By the early 1980s, boutiques and crafts stores surrounded the old courthouse, which had become a gold museum.

The debate between the opposing factions raged for weeks, prompting spillover crowds at city council meetings. As a reporter for the The Times in Gainesville, Ga., back then, I was the only member of the media present for most of those meetings, but the final vote attracted the attention of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the state’s biggest newspaper.

I mention this old controversy just to note that what happened in Orange County is not new and isn’t confined to Virginia. Nonetheless, we likely will see more fights here because that squabble pits two principles that Virginians hold dear: the rights of private property owners and the preservation of historic treasures.

In the Orange County case, Wal-Mart wanted to build a 143,000-square-foot store near the Wilderness battlefield. The site was on private property that had been zoned for commercial use for decades. In addition, there already are some businesses in the area.

Preservationists and some local residents, however, believed that the store would usher in massive development, ruining the “gateway” to the battlefield where the armies of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant fought in 1864.

When the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a special permit in 2009 allowing construction of the store, the opponents sued. The trial was just getting under way in Orange County Circuit Court when Wal-Mart made a sudden retreat. The company dropped its plans for the Wilderness site, saying it would look for another spot in eastern Orange County. Wal-Mart also promised to preserve the Wilderness site and pay the county’s legal expenses in defending against the suit.

This new plan appeared to satisfy everyone involved except the Orange County supervisors, who appeared to be stunned by Wal-Mart’s sudden desertion of the cause of property rights. The supervisors, after all, had endured a hail of criticism for approving plans for the store.

“They caught us way off guard,” Supervisor Teel Goodwin told Fredericksburg’s Free Lance- Star on the day that Wal-Mart announced its change of plans. “Up until yesterday, we thought we had a commitment. It would have been easier if they’d done this before we got right to the brink.”

He makes a good point. A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company changed its mind because it was “the right thing to do.” But you have to wonder: Why wasn’t this compromise the right thing to do in 2009 when it would have saved everyone the agony and expense of the lawsuit?

Retail analysts say Wal-Mart rarely backs down when it has decided on a store site, but perhaps the giant retailer decided it had bitten off more than it could chew in potentially damaging national publicity. The plaintiff’s witness list included James McPherson, a Princeton historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Civil War book “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker whose 1990 series “The Civil War” still appears on public TV stations. Oh, and by the way, the Civil War Sesquicentennial gets under way in April.

Wal-Mart may have tuned out the protests in Orange as just more anti-big-box static. Websites list organizations opposing Wal-Mart superstore plans in 39 states. California alone has more than 30 of these groups.

But Wal-Mart and any other major chain would be wise not to treat any site in Virginia as a routine job because of the sensitivity of historic sites. Walt Disney learned this lesson in 1993 when it announced plans to build a theme park, Disney’s America, in the Gainesville area of western Prince William County not far from the Manassas battlefield. The company had the support of Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and his successor, Republican Gov. George Allen, but eventually backed down after a barrage of bad publicity.

Wal-Mart got its own taste of this type of backlash in 1996 when it tried to put a store next door to Ferry Farm, Washington’s boyhood home in Stafford County. The critics of that move included Cessie Howell, the wife of legislator Bill Howell, now speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. The retailer eventually found another site to its liking.

Wal-Mart also faced a potential black eye 10 years ago when it tried to enter Ashland, 15 miles north of Richmond. Many residents of the college town of about 7,500 people fought the store, fearing it would destroy local businesses and change the character of the community. That scrap became the subject of a PBS documentary “Store Wars.”

Wal-Mart eventually built the store but submitted to a number of restrictions. It is smaller than a typical store and not easily seen from the main road leading into town from Interstate 95. Ashland’s appearance and its local merchants appear to be unscathed.

The resolution of Wal-Mart’s battles in Ashland and Orange County harkens back to what happened in Dahlonega. McDonald’s came to town, but the company unexpectedly dropped its plans for the big neon sign. For years, I thought that the growing publicity had influenced that change of heart, but I later found out that Margaret Owens had placed a call to the home of Ray Croc, the head of McDonald’s. She didn’t reach him but apparently made a persuasive argument to his second in command.

During the past three decades, other businesses have followed McDonald’s to Dahlonega, but all have understated signs.

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