Fourteen years ago I stood on the banks of the muddy Rappahannock River, speaking to a crowd of roughly 100 people gathered to protest a Wal-Mart superstore planned on the site of Ferry Farm, the boyhood home George Washington. A light snow was falling in the February chill.
"I cannot tell a lie," I told the project's opponents, "this is one of the dumbest sites for a Wal-Mart store I have ever seen."
Several months later, Wal-Mart was bought out by a historic preservation group -- and they slid their store several miles east down Route 3. But the company never learned the lesson of Ferry Farm, and they continue to try to bulldoze history out of their path.
Now Wal-Mart has chosen a dumber site than Ferry Farm -- this one also in Virginia, and also of immense historic significance. This week, the first shot in a long legal battle over a 138,000 square foot Wal-superstore near the Wilderness Civil War battlefield has hit Wal-Mart -- but its just a superficial wound.
The outcome of the 1864 Wilderness Battle may have been hard for Union or Confederate troops to predict at the time -- but the zoning outcome of the Wal-Mart battle near the Wilderness Battlefield 145 years later was never in doubt. Local officials were ready to give this project a special permit even before the first volley of facts against the project were fired.
Last June, the Orange County, Virginia Planning Commission voted to recommend a special permit for a Wal-Mart superstore one quarter mile from the Wilderness battlefield, the site of the first clash between Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. An estimated 160,000 troops fought at The Wilderness. Before the end of the two day confrontation, as many as 29,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured. According to the Friends of the Wilderness, the battle was a tactical draw.
But Wal-Mart opponents do not intend to end this legal battle with a tactical draw. A lawsuit was filed in September to push Wal-Mart out of The Wilderness. Wal-Mart marched by the Planning Commission on a narrow 5-4 vote. In August of 2009, the Orange County Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the project. The Civil War Preservation Trust, which has fought the project since the first shot, called that vote a "setback for preservationists" but warned, "this battle is not over yet."
A Wal-Mart spokesman made it clear that the retailer was digging in at The Wilderness. "Two years ago, the county decided this site was one where growth should occur," the company official said. "We have looked at alternative sites and there are other sites but they require rezoning. There is no guarantee the county would approve another site."
One month after the County vote, opponents got their chance to fire back. Litigation was filed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) and the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield. The National Trust said the County Board of Supervisors "failed to gather and consider important information about negative effects on the County, its citizens and its historic resources."
This week, seven and a half months after that appeal was filed, the plaintiffs have won the first skirmish. A Judge in the Orange County Circuit Court has ruled that opponents have legal "standing" to move forward with their lawsuit. The Orange Board of Supervisors' request that the lawsuit be dismissed was rejected. Now the case can proceed on its merits.
The Judge forced the National Trust out of the case for lack of standing, but found that a huge Wal-Mart superstore raised valid concerns about increased traffic and environmental impacts. "The use of land by an establishment like Wal-Mart could have an adverse and immediate impact," the Judge wrote.
A long list of historians and dignitaries have spoken out against this Wal-Mart site, including Civil War filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Robert Duvall, Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine, and Congressmen from Vermont and Texas, representing the soldiers from both states who lost their lives at The Wilderness. "The question for Wal-Mart, one of the world's most successful corporations, is whether they need a fifth Wal-Mart within 20 miles to be sited on this 'cathedral of suffering,'" said Vermont Congressman Peter Welch.
Actor Robert Duvall expressed a similar sentiment. "I believe in capitalism, but I believe in capitalism coupled with sensitivity. Sensitivity towards historical events and the feelings of the people of this whole area." The Civil War Preservation Trust says a 'Wilderness Wal-Mart' would wreck the unique character of the existing battlefield park and countryside, and shatter the "reverent atmosphere" that surrounds one of America's bloodiest battlefields.
Wal-Mart Realty apparently learned nothing from its run-in with George Washington fourteen years ago, and now is running full-tilt into the ghosts of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. As a company which is tone-deaf to the history of this country, Wal-Mart should immediately sound a retreat and pull its cannons back.
There are plenty of other communities to destroy, and even if Wal-Mart ultimately were to build another Orange County store on this site, it will be badly bloodied in the court of public opinion.
Al Norman has been fighting big box stores for 17 years. He is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and the author of "The Case Against Wal-Mart." 60 Minutes has called him "the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement."