In Orange County, Va., sprawl seems to be winning. County officials last week voted in favor of a proposal to clear an historic Civil War battlefield to make way for a 240,000 square foot big box development -- that's more square footage of commercial space than is housed in the Empire State Building. The centerpiece of the development is a 138,000-square-foot Walmart, according to the Civil War Preservation Trust.
I watched a similar debate in New York's Hudson Valley, where the most important northern supply area for the Revolutionary War, the Fishkill Encampment, has been carved up for decades into ever smaller bits, as chain developments pave over the history. There's a chance the recent discover of some grave sites may prevent yet another development proposal.
Battlefields and encampments don't leave a whole lot of very visible history. There aren't ruins, necessarily, and some would say there's a tendency to simply use history as an excuse to thwart development. Expansive batttlefields in suburban areas, however, tend to be among the few pockets of open space around, and history should matter. Those two sites played notable roles in two of this nation's most important historical episodes.
In the case of the Hudson Valley, local advocates and the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation and Historical Preservation support the preservation of the encampment as an historic site. In the case of the Virginia battlefield, the National Parks Conservation Association is among the advocates for preservation:
"We are extremely disappointed, although not surprised, by the Orange County Board of Supervisors vote to allow construction of the Wal-Mart superstore on historic land near an important Civil War battlefield here in Virginia," said NPCA Virginia Program Manager Catharine Gilliam. "This commercial development is improperly sited on land that is critical to understanding the National Park Service's interpretation of the Battle of the Wilderness for the American people. NPCA has actively participated and offered constructive suggestions to find alternatives that would protect the neighboring national park and allow a Wal-Mart to be built on less sensitive land. It is not necessary to desecrate the land where a horrific battle took place less than 150 years ago in pursuit of profit and pavement.
"Although members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors announced repeatedly that they would vote to approve Wal-Mart's application, even before the public process began, NPCA and our members, and other organizations in the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, participated in the public process at every stage available. Despite (the recent) disappointing vote, we will continue to explore options to protect this important national park. This battle is not over yet. We continue to hold out hope that Wal-Mart will do the right thing by relocating its business, and respect and protect America's heritage and history."
In the end, this has everything to do with planning for development. Most communities don't want to go without any development, but it's in their hands to determine where that development should be concentrated and what type of development should take place. Knowing what sites are important to local (or national) history, and to the quality of the local environment is the first step. Zoning to protect them, by diverting development into existing town centers, primarily, is the next step. And holding fast to your values in the face of pressure from moneyed interests is the final step. It takes concerned citizens at every step of the way, and the values of preservation don't always win.
The fight is worth fighting.
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