Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Group Meets to Discuss The Wilderness Battlefield

LOCUST GROVE — After losing an initial bid to stop retail giant Walmart from building a store near the Wilderness Civil War battlefield, preservation groups and those opposing the project must take a critical look at themselves if they hope to achieve their mission, one official says.

Speaking to Friends of Wilderness Battlefield on Saturday during the group’s annual meeting, Russell P. Smith, superintendent of the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park, also said the matter is broader than the controversy between the Wilderness and the often-maligned Arkansas-based retailer.

“We learned a lot of lessons,” he said. “The conclusions that I’ve drawn go well beyond any single major discount retailer.”

The controversy reached a crescendo in August, when the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a special use permit allowing Walmart to construct a 138,000-square-foot store near Routes 3 and 20. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and six individuals have joined the FoWB in a lawsuit, challenging the supervisors’ decision in Circuit Court. A February hearing date is set for the matter.

Smith said one of the paradigms that must change is the perception that land must either be preserved forever or totally opened to development. Another, he said, is that the federal government should automatically purchase a tract of land if it has significant historical value.

Neither of those all-or-nothing lines of thought is practical or realistic, said Smith. Instead, he said legislators, preservation groups, communities and private individuals must unite to craft solutions that take into account the unique aspects of each situation.

He also said schools have not always made it a priority to educate kids — and the community — about the historical significance of places like the Wilderness, where the armies of Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met in 1864.

“Kids shouldn’t grow up in this area and not know that they’re living near or on a nationally significant battlefield,” adding that funding for such programs is often hard to obtain.

“We’re going to rely more on the Friends and other organizations to get out there and beyond our boundaries and tell those stories in the schools, to get kids in the area to understand that where they live is really important — it’s really quite significant to the entire country.”

About 65 people attended the organization’s annual meeting Saturday at Lake of the Woods Church in Locust Grove. Guests included two University of Vermont graduate students who are studying the Wilderness Walmart controversy.

Other guests included Sen. Edd Houck, D-17th and Del. Ed Scott, R-30th. Both men praised the work of the Friends and assured the group that land use issues haven’t dropped off the radar in Richmond or Washington.

Houck, the event’s key speaker, said Gov. Tim Kaine should be recognized for fulfilling his promise to preserve 400,000 acres of open space. He also said federal stimulus money has been essential, allowing the state to continue support of land use issues despite ongoing budget shortfalls.

“Your outreach to Sen. Houck, to me, to others in the legislature is clearly paying dividends,” Scott said. “I’m glad to join with you today and I’m proud to be a member of your organization and I look forward to continuing to work with you.”