Wal-Mart Request Would Put a Super Center Next to The Wilderness Battlefield

The Old Germann Plank Road Trace runs near the site of the Wilderness Tavern on the Wilderness Battlefield at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Wal-Mart is proposing a massive development on the edge of the battlefield. NPS photo.

Northern Virginia is a much more crowded place than it was during the Civil War. But Civil War historians, preservationists, and buffs, as well as National Park Service officials, are still flummoxed by Wal-Mart's wish to place a super center next to one of the most poignant battlefields of the Civil War.

"I am very disappointed they didn't consider other sites and didn't listen to the feedback they got that this site is too close to the Wilderness battlefield," Russ Smith, superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

Wal-Mart's plan is to develop a 53-to-55-acre tract of land just north of the Wilderness Corner intersection. Part of the proposed development would hold a super center covering nearly 140,000 square feet, with enough room left over for additional retail outlets. While that land is not part of the national battlefield, it is, historically, part of the Wilderness Battlefield.

According to the Park Service, the Battle of the Wilderness was fought on May 5-6, 1864, with troops under both Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee engaged. "It was the beginning of the Overland Campaign, the bloodiest campaign in American history and the turning point in the war in the Eastern Theatre," notes the agency.

Last summer a coalition of groups -- the Civil War Preservation Trust, Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Piedmont Environmental Council -- wrote Wal-Mart president and CEO, H. Lee Scott, Jr., asking that his corporation look elsewhere for its project.

The Wilderness Battlefield was determined to be one of the most historically significant battlegrounds in the nation by a blue ribbon panel created by Congress in 1990. In an exhaustive 1993 report, the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission (CWSAC) identified Wilderness as a Priority I, Class A site, its highest designation. The commission identified the 55-acre parcel as part of the Wilderness Battlefield.

Today more than 2,773 acres of the Wilderness Battlefield are preserved as part of Fredericksburg and
Spotsylvania National Military Park. This Super Wal-Mart would be built within one-quarter mile of
the National Park and would pave the way for desecration of the Wilderness with unnecessary
commercial growth. Such a large-scale development is inappropriate next to a National Park.

At the Civil War Preservation Trust, policy director Jim Campi told the Free Lance-Star that the location of the proposed development is "extremely inappropriate for any kind of big-box commercial, especially a Wal-Mart.

"We're not telling Wal-Mart 'No way.' We're just telling them, 'Not here,'" he said.

Comments

NO NO NO NO NO!!! Have respect for this precious land! ! ! !...............there are ENOUGH Walmart's & shopping centers!!!!

Walmart = Greed.....plain and simple.

If it isn't Walmart, will it just be some other development? Walmart is always an easy target bash. The real issue is what to do about this property if it is important to the battlefield.

I agree with the previous comment that this is not about Walmart. Would people be as concerned if it were a housing development? If the land is privately owned, does not the owner have the right to use the property as he/she pleases?

Absolutely, Anonymous. If the land is outside the park and privately owned, the owner does have the right (at least under a free society) to develop the land. How long has this land been there, unused, sitting? How long has there been an opportunity for a conservation easement, for someone, like the Nature Conservancy or other concerned citizens, to buy the land and set it aside permanently?

But let the Wal-Mart bashing continue.

Let the looting continue.

Why?

Who is John Galt?

Frank and Anonymous, you both hit on a point that comes up time and again when there's talk of development beyond a park's borders, whether it's the case of the American Revolution Center near Valley Forge, this Wal-Mart proposal, or oil and gas drilling in Utah.

Does an amicable solution exist? Where do a park's borders end, its viewsheds? What's appropriate in those settings?

My concern is that as more and more growth and sprawl occur, many of these places are going to become isolated islands and slowly wither on the vine. But private property rights are private property rights. That's not a complaint; that's just the way it is.

Would a Whole Foods or let's say an REI outlet cause as much ire from the NPT readership as a Wally World? If this parcel of land was so important to preserve you'd a thunk by now that some concerned group or individual would've purchased it. Am I right?

I'm sure the new store will sell a wide range of Civil War souvenirs and memorabilia, just like their Tuscaloosa, Alabama store which has a whole section devoted to the Crimson Tide or their Destin, Florida outlet that sells a wide range of seashells, sand dollars and conchs for way cheaper than the roadside rip-off shops strung along U.S. 98.

I can't wait to visit the new Wilderness Super Center when it opens for business. Think I'll buy me a Confederate infantry hat and give a great big rebel yell in the parking lot.

Not too surprising, considering the "Yellow Tavern" battlefield just North of Richmond is the site of an expansive mall complex today. The site where JEB Stuart received his mortal wound can be found nearby, after a tedious search through suburbia, surrounded by homes.

To have more of these sites compromised would be a travesty. Let's hope the coalition of groups listed above can influence the final decision as to where to build yet another supercenter.

Beamis, as much as I'd like to hear your rebel yell...while Wal-Mart certainly is a favorite punching bag of many, I'd venture that folks would get similarly upset if Whole Foods or REI or Best Buy moved to develop this much acreage next to a park.

Heck, I was bummed when a nice open field on the outskirts of Park City was turned into a commercial development with two groceries, a hotel, timeshares, a bank, and more. Did you know you can see the Golden Arches from atop the Olympic ski jump?

As far as some "concerned group or individual" having moved to buy the land to preserve it, I'd hazard a guess that their pockets aren't quite as deep as Wal-Mart's.

Kurt: I agree. So I guess I will be "Preaching to the Chior".

Basicaly, I have always believed that if you wish to control what occures on any piece of land, then you need to own that land. If you do not want to SEE what is done with somebody's land, then again, you need to own that land also.

We have enough land use and zoning laws. After you see what business has to go through so that they can open their doors for business, people would have more respect for the process.

I have as yet to ever see an occasion when Walmart, or any other business, go to the time and expence to open a business just so that they could "clutter up the landscape".

We recently had a Walmart store open up in our community. I view their store as just another option when I go shopping. They have never forced me to come into their store nor made me purchase any item. It is all free choice.

If you do not like a store, DO NOT SHOP THERE! I personaly do not shop at "Smoke Shops"or "Adult" stores, but I defend their right to exist within the same scope of laws that govern all "Growth".

I also doubt people would so rabidly protest an REI or Whole Foods. It's so easy to blame Wal-Mart, but in their defense, as they have also said, the area was zoned for commercial development. It's also at the intersection of two State highways.

A fair amount of blame here rests with government for its zoning decisions and for building major highways on or near "sacred" land.

An umbrella group formed to fight the big-box store, the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition includes Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, the Civil War Preservation Trust, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Piedmont Environmental Council and Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields.

Certainly these groups could have raised enough cash to buy the 55 acre lot in question. Why have they been sitting on their laurels until now?

And where has Superintendent Smith been up to this point? He slams Wal-Mart: "Wal-Mart's answer seems to be: It's zoned commercial, so we have no responsibility." I don't believe that is Wal-Mart's answer, but I agree that they do not have a responsibility in the zoning of the land.

Frank C., there have been multiple zoning discussions involving the Spotsylvania-Wilderness-Fredericksburg battlefields.

No one is sitting on their hands, except perhaps for the fact that the local government does not have one overall land protection and development strategy for all these areas.

It is an extremely high-development prone area (on a major exit of Route 95), and the tendency by local government is to work on land use preservation one parcel/crisis at a time. Almost like spot zoning. It would be better if a concensus plan could be developed identifying both appropriate development areas. At one point there was a county planner who wanted to work that way, but one or two of the local elected officials either lacked his sophistication, or philosophy of planning.

Many parcels of land have been purchased, too often at the last minute, in the heat of a "develop it or preserve it" conflict. Many of these conflicts have involved numerous local voices showing up at hearings to protest an insensitive development. Several have been resolved, some of them involving a compromise both by developers and preservationists.

Previous efforts in the area to negotiate with Wal Mart have shown Wal Mart to be less open to working something out in common good than other developers, in the opinion of local groups. On example: when Wal-Mart proposed to develop George Washington's "Ferry Farm" in Fredericksburg, an NHL because of archeological value, there was no middle ground toward a compromise. In the perception of the local preservation group in their communications to Congress on Ferry Farm, they said you either raised the money to buy the land out from under Wal Mart, or Wal Mart built whatever it wanted, in the way it wanted to.

Frank C., I don't rightly know if Superintendent Smith has been out in front of this one or not. He, personally, is an Interpreter by background, without a career of land use protection strategies behind him. However, the second-level staff are well known for their expertise and tenacity from multiple land use fights throughout the 'reigns' of the last 4 or maybe 5 superintendents. My guess is this park has been way out ahead of this issue for a long time. This group has received a lot of support from Senator John Warner (R-VA), who is retiring at the end of the month. Warner also had a brilliant staff. They knew how to wait until local political support gathered on behalf of the protection of a specific site.

So, if I were to guess, I would think Superintendent Smith would be smart enough to back up all his Alpha-staff, but I would worry about what will happen with Sen. John Warner and his great staff gone. I would guess leadership will have to fall back on the Civil War land trust groups.

Kurt, I find it interesting that you lament seeing the Golden Arches from the Olympic ski jump because nothing says crass corporatism to me louder than the Olympics. It is the very essence of commercial exploitation on steroids.

So if your view from this hallowed mountain spot is of the very symbol of mass commercialization maybe it was by design. There may have been a bidding war for the "official" Olympic viewshed, with the highest bidder being McDonald's instead of Starbucks.

It sounds as if this parcel was going to be developed no matter what. This is just a thought. In other parts of the USA, WalMart has built attractive buildings as well placed landscaping around the parking lot and the road that it was facing. Recently we were in New Hampshire and saw a WalMart that, if it hadn't had the sign, I would never have thought it was one. When I was north of San Francisco some years ago, there was a WalMart that was attractive and I couldn't believe how attractive they had made the parking lot. If WalMart is going to build there, see if they will work with the locals concerning the outward appearance of the building as well as the landscaping of the property. It doen't have to be a big box on a bare piece of land. Believe it or not, it could be a good thing for tourists to have access to WalMart or Target, etc. Maybe you all have never forgotten anything or needed cold medicine, aspirin, lost your sunglasses, etc. on a trip, but it happens. This could be a good thing for everyone concerned if people are willing to look at it in a different way.

There is an excellent book that chronicles a similar situation with another Civil War battlefield in Northern Virginia.
The Book is titled "Battling for Manassas", by historian Joan M. Zenzen. Interesting reading... I don't believe it's in print any longer, but try and get it from your library if you can, especially if you are a member of the coalition working against the Walmart development.

It could be a big-box retailer, or a strip mall of locally owned businesses, some crunchy-granola grocery store, or a national theme park chain...
Anyone who tries to develop land directly adjacent to a Civil War battlefield will most certainly meet with prolonged opposition.

Can we be realistic here? The NPS/historic site boundary has to stop somewhere. If friends of the battlefield in question are concerned about viewscapes, or being tainted by proximity to the commercial world, or that the land to be developed is historic but not protected by the NPS, then the local community and coalition of protectors has to get involved.
The coalition that came together last summer to draft a letter to Walmart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. is well intentioned for sure. But they have to do more than just draft a single letter. The effort to chase Disney out of Manassas was a multi-year process, and took the involvement of nationally recognized historians and celebrities (that happened to live in the area) to get involved and fund the effort. If the NPS (or any of the community partners in Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania) didn't have the foresight to acquire and protect the land in question then maybe it's just too darn bad. A shame to some, but the process has to end somewhere.

Let's please get away from the Walmart vs. Whole Foods tangent. These same broad strokes used to paint stereotypes were used in the comment string concerning loaded concealed firearms in the National Parks, and were just as ugly and ineffective in that debate.
I assure you that ANY corporation expressing interest in commercial development on historic land would meet with the same opposition. The Civil War preservation crowd is nothing if not tenacious, vocal, and consistent in it's vocal opposition to ANY commercial development on or near hallowed ground.

Beamis:
Interestingly enough, there is a noticeable Confederate bias in much of the Civil War interpretation that occurs on the battlefields managed by the NPS (a topic of discussion for another comment thread for sure), so I'm not so sure that your rebel yell in the neighboring Wilderness Super Center parking lot would be unwelcome by the Gray and Green working on the battlefield!

Dear Warren Z:

I am not clear from your post: are you saying that the Priority I, Class A site should, or should not be preserved (IE:preserved by either adding it to the park or some local equivalent protection)?

You say, park boundaries should stop somewhere. A truism, sure, but in this specific case the question is, should this parcel be protected? If not, are you also saying that the 1993 CWSAC report should NOT be considered the authority for protection, as it has been? There was a great series of exchanges and meetings among park superintendents in the later 1990's, resulting in what seemed to be a consensus that the report's recommendations ARE legitimate. These recommendations DO NOT suggest that all parcels have the same high priority for conservation.

On the other hand, if you agree the parcel is historically significant, and the 1993 Report remains the gold standard for evaluation, then what exactly are you recommending be done in this particular case? Certainly there are many other parcels in the region that Wal Mart could consider.

How 'bout if Wal Mart and other Big Boxes sponsor a nationwide land use planning initiative? It could recommend to local governments that they identify critical landscapes, and develop more creative wise use and smart use development/preservation tactics and strategies. Such regional land use strategies, pro both conservation and development, is happening now within some national heritage corridors. Why not here?

BTW, I agree with you about the pro-Southern interpretive bias in the NPS. Arguably, Fredericksburg-Spottsylvania was once, and still may be, a center of that school of history and interpretation. However, at the strong urging of many reputable non-government historians, there is a growing movement to recognize the Meaning, not just the tactics, of the Civil War and, central to that Meaning, is the role played by slavery.

Wal-mart needs to go somewhere else. On second thought, don't we have enough Wal-marts? Do we really need one more? I don't think so. They'll probably build this store, then build a bigger and better one a few years later, and this store will sit empty and broken down forever. Enough of corporate greed.

d-2:

I'm newly aware of this situation, so I'm not familiar with the entire history of the site. But your first post in this comment string is educational in that regard. My own first post was a quick reaction to reading the article and commentary.

As for the 1993 CWSAC, I will have to familiarize myself with that document before answering those questions.

My gut reaction is, protect it if you can. If the attempt to chase away Walmart fails, hopefully the locally concerned will learn from the experience and get to work saving and protecting other parcels in the path of economic development before the threat becomes so immediate. Unfortunately we haven't learned this lesson yet, despite the gradual erasure of one historic site after another.
It's not impossible to chase the giant away, if the coalition is ready to take concerted, prolonged action.
If the Big Blue wins, maybe we'll see some impromptu live reenactment of battle with guns and ammo purchased at the Wilderness Walmart!

National retailers participating in land use/management decisions that might effect their own bottom line?? Not likely to benefit the preservation efforts in any serious way. (Again, I'm unfamiliar with any such efforts that could be seen as successful.) Especially unlikely for Walmart, which is one of the only national businesses, retail or otherwise, that is still making profit during our current recession. What's in it for them? They're winning the game, so why do they need to generate warm fuzzy publicity amongst the preservation set? But why not give it a try? It couldn't hurt.
(But I'm cynical in that regard. And personally worried that such an agreement would morph into national sponsorships dictating NPS names and decisions: The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvanis National Military Park sponsored by WALMART, filled with Kodak picture spots, and video monitors running interpretive films starring Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie replacing live Park Ranger Interpreters... )
As you alluded to in your first post, I fear the only way to beat a money-making machine is to beat it at it's own game: buy the land out from under them. OR, as they did in Manassas, show Disney the door through a multi-year, well-funded, and well-publicized publicity action.

In no way did I intend to support the current bias in Civil War interpretation within the NPS. (On a visit to Antietam a few years ago, the Interpretive Ranger that delivered the orientation demonstrated heavy bias towards the Confederate Army, and when questioned became quite dismissive of the idea that slavery was a big part of the story. I was amazed that the NPS would allow such one-sided interpretation.) I'm with the non-government historians: to recognize the full meaning of a site, we need to tell all stories., hopefully without telling the visitors what they should feel.
Another book you might be interested in this regard: "Race and Reunion", by historian David Blight. The author examines how the story of slavery, and indeed all African-American connection to the story of the Gettysburg, was immediately ignored in the name of national healing.

Haven't we developed enough land? I'm quite certain there is an empty building somewhere that Wal-Mart can utilize. When we moved into our home 4 1/2 years ago, we were able to hear the coyotes howling at night. Now we rarely hear them, maybe once a year. This is all due to development. Come on Wal-Mart find some property that's already been developed and leave nature well enough alone.

This string of comments makes clear that there are three competing issues here.

The first, most obvious knee-jerk reaction is the anti-Wal-Mart moralizing. "On second thought, don't we have enough Wal-marts? Do we really need one more?" A lot of people out there have objections to Wal-Mart's business model, and will gladly grasp any proffered handle to jerk them around. In this case, Wal-Mart can be accused of profaning the Wilderness battlefield, automatically ranking them in some eyes with Protestant (or Taliban, if you prefer) iconoclasts. This reaction is irrelevant here, which is the point made by the first two Anonymous posters. In terms of land-use policy, Wal-Mart should be viewed as no different from any other large retailer, and little different from many other kinds of development.

The second, also irrelevant, is the aesthetic reaction. Wal-Mart, with its big, unadorned buildings, gaudy colors, free overnight RV parking in expansive, well-lit lots, and teeming masses of unwashed proles can always be counted on to attract the disapprobation of the aesthetes. Kurt's objection to the Golden Arches' visibility from the Park City ski jump is in this category, and no surprise since the blaring reds and yellows of McDonalds were Public Enemy Number One for the aesthetes since Wal-Mart was an Arkansas five and dime. According to this argument, proximity itself is metaphysically harmful to the site. Presumably, ugly Wal-mart's presence has a negative metaphysical effect on the mana accumulated at a site like Wildnerness, which decreases exponentially with distance, presumably like electromagnetic radiation. So a Wal-mart a mere quarter mile from a park's boundaries represents an impairment in a way that the same store 5 miles away would not. To the aesthetes, I say be glad that Wildnerness is in a region where trees can block unwelcome views (with consequent mitigating effects on accumulated mana). If you can accept the place of department stores in the community, but object merely to the architecture, then talk to Ed McMahon of the Smart Growth Network, who beats that particular drum for a living.

The third issue is the relevant one: what do we do about parcels of land that are of historical or natural value, but are destined to be developed for other purposes? What we are dealing with is not often recognized for what it is: a superfluity of sacredness. There are so many places of importance that it would be wasteful to preserve them all. Yes, wasteful. Preservation is subject to the law of diminishing returns; how many acres does one need to preserve, appreciate, and educate about the Battle of the Wilderness? The boundaries must go somewhere; there must be a line between sacred and profane space. There must be a finite number of acres sufficient to the task. If we just buy up every adjacent parcel at risk of development, there can be no end to it.

One technique that is cynical in inverse proportion to its effectiveness is the attempt to shame, harass, or obstruct Wal-Mart into withdrawing. Wal-Mart employs a lot of people, and provides returns for a lot of investors, and to that end they are in the business of providing low-cost retail and services. That's what they do. They have some awfully clever demographers, geographers, and economists punching numbers, shuffling paper, and identifying profitable sites. They are extremely good at it. They have no reason to avoid an available site because it's historic, much less because it's adjacent to something historic. If they sacrificed the site to a competitor, or bought the land or its conservation easement for the purpose of preservation, they would be betraying their shareholders (i.e., your IRA, your pension, your retirement).

So what's the solution? With a surfeit of sites, we have to be like a doctor in triage: in the time available, with the resources available, how can we salvage the most, and most important, resources? The Civil War Sites Advisory Commission is doing triage, but like anyone charged with that unpleasant task, they are dismayed at how many must be abandoned to save a few. Doctors have cursed this necessity since time immemorial (think Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H), but it remains necessary. There remains the problem of local government's all-too-common inability to manage these problems, which is a weakness of democratic government--few county supervisors are equipped to deal with this kind of thing.

Kurt is right, these debates over land use are intractable. We go over this stuff again and again, in a thousand contexts. But confusion over the real issue only makes it more difficult. It doesn't matter if the planned development is a Wal-Mart, an REI, a hospital or a low-income apartment community, but when it's a Wal-Mart (or McDonalds), expect the Wal-Mart-haters and aesthetes to come out in droves, and endlessly complicate an already difficult situation.

There's so many good textbooks written on the subject of mallization of America. City planners have fought for years to stabilize regional planning fiascos that corporate interests tries to shove down are throats...Walmart is one of them with their jaded wing tip shoe lawyers. Dumps in the backyard of the minorities, freeways zoned in the backyards of the middleclass, and the rich in gated communities afar from the maddening crowd. Now it's coming folks, the mallization of the National Parks...Geo. Bush style! Let's see folks, you now have oil and gas leases at the borders of the National Parks and soon to come, a spiffy Walmart to enhance the natural beauty of the parks. Can't beat it! They say, take an inch and grab a foot Walmart style...and screw their employees. The American way!

Dan-----well said. Your insight adds an important dimension to this debate.

Dan,

What needs to be said, and folks need to be educated on with regard to the Wilderness site is it is ON the battlefield, not adjacent.

Fact is the site is included within the boundaries of the original tract of land considered "battlefield" under the initial survey by the War Department.

This isn't a case where someone is seeking to preserve some locality where Elvis once sang, or where the first cheeseburger was served. This site is linked into the watershed event in American History.

Yoy know in terms of being environmentally friendly Wal-Mart is not as bad as many people think. That being said, I was not so sure as what should be done at first. The park has to end somewhere, but the store would very close to the park in fact too close and the land is historically. In the end, I hope the Wal-Mart is not yet good points have been made on both sides.

Dan as for ypu point will it ever end........no. Example: Cutting down a historically tree in New England.

Living in Fredericksburg, Virginia for the past dozen or so years, I have watched the explosion of commercial and residential development in this area. We’re talking less than 150,000 people. The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania battlefields you could say are my neighbors being less than half a mile to 8 miles away.

How many Wal-Marts (5), Lowes (3), Home Depot (3), Grocery Stores (numerous, and we will be getting a new Wegmans in the spring), Pharmacies (numerous with CVS and Rite Aid leading the pack) etc. does an area really need? Did I mention the Kalahari Water Park and Convention Center?

If I choose to shop at a Wal-Mart Supercenter I have three to choose from within a 5 Mile radius. I can travel south for 1.5 miles, or north for 3.5 miles or east for 4.5miles. Thinking about it, I don’t think I have been in a Wal-Mart in years.

The Orange county folks have been way over due for this kind of development.

Now those folks that live over in the Wilderness battlefield have been denied the Wal-Mart shopping experience for two long. My gosh they have to travel 14.5 miles east to the Fredericksburg Supercenter or 15.4 miles to the Culpeper Supercenter. It’s probably about time that they should be able to spend their hard earned dollars without such a “terribly inconvenient drive”.

Semper Fi

I thought this was an interesting observation on the matter from libertarian columnist Lew Rockwell:

Now a bunch of academic and media propagandists for federal power want to stop Wal-Mart from bringing low prices and great products to the working people of Orange County, Virginia. What is their excuse? The store is to be in a strip shopping mall one mile from a Civil War killing place. The deathfield, where 50,000 defenders defeated 100,000 invaders, is said to be "hallowed ground." But Wal-Mart is not (and cannot) build there. However, the shopping area is also "hallowed" because it was an assembly zone for the aggressors. Can't have it turned to commerce, a life-building activity disdained by left-wing intellectuals.