Battlefield-Walmart Fight Moves Forward

Judge rules residents can contest county approval of Supercenter

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    A judge on Friday kept alive the fight to block a Walmart Supercenter near an endangered Civil War site where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant first met on the field of battle.

    Circuit Court Judge Daniel R. Bouton rejected a bid by Orange County to dismiss the challenge and instead ruled residents who live near the Wilderness Battlefield and a historic group can contest the county's approval of the store at trial.

    The decision resurrects a fierce national effort to protect a battlefield in northern Virginia where 180,000 soldiers fought and 26,000 were killed or injured 146 years ago.

    More than 250 historians, Civil War preservationists and celebrities such as actor Robert Duvall and filmmaker Ken Burns have taken a stand against the store and its possible impact on the battlefield. The Supercenter planned by Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. would be outside the limits of the protected national park but within an area where troops prepared for battle, marched, and died of their injuries.

    The challenge was brought by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, six residents who live within 3 miles or less of the Walmart site and a group that maintains an historic estate on the battlefield. They argued that the county Board of Supervisors ignored or rejected the assistance of historians and other preservation experts when it approved the special use permit for Walmart last August.

    In his ruling, Bouton decided that the National Trust had no legal standing in the dispute but ruled for the residents and the local preservation group. The judge cited another national chain in ruling for the residents: Starbucks.

    While the residents would have a tough case proving one of the ubiquitous coffee chain's stores several miles away would disrupt their lives, the judge said the construction of a 138,000-square-foot Walmart was another story. He said residents had legitimate fears about increased traffic and litter.

    "Thus, the use of land by an establishment like Walmart could have an adverse and immediate impact on far more property owners than would a Starbucks," Bouton wrote.

    The judge also concluded that the Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield had standing in the case and could move forward with a legal challenge. The group maintains an historic property at the battlefield, Ellwood Manor, a former plantation house that dates to the 1700s and served as a hospital for Confederate troops. It is located less than 1 mile from the store's site.

    Bouton said the group would be "significantly affected" by the county's approval of the store.

    In a statement, National Trust President Richard Moe said, "While the National Trust will not serve as a plaintiff in this lawsuit, we are very pleased that local Orange County residents and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield will be able to challenge this Wal-Mart project that threatens an historic place they care about."

    Zann Nelson, president of the Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield, said members "eagerly await trial."

    "We are grateful for the ruling of the court that allows us to speak on behalf of preservation and the Orange County community that care about this national treasure," Nelson said.

    An attorney representing Orange County had not reviewed the ruling and had no immediate response. Walmart, which was not a party to this dispute, did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment.

    The ruling focused on the legal question of whether the residents and preservation groups could further pursue their challenge and did not debate the historic arguments against the store.

    Preservationists and some local residents argue the retail center will bring more commerce, traffic and pollution to the gateway of what is considered one of the nation's most hallowed Civil War sites.

    Walmart and its supporters have said the store would be in a commercial zone that's already crowded with small retail outlets, and it would provide tax revenues and jobs in this rural county of approximately 15,000.