Monday, January 24, 2011

Last Minute Preservation Rarely Works

Preservationists are in court this week trying to block the construction of a Walmart at the site of the Battle of the Wilderness. Historian James McPherson released an advance text of his testimony, which says that the fighting during the battle
included areas very close to the Walmart site. And the historical record makes clear that the land on or adjacent to that site was the immediate rear of the fighting. where significant events occurred that were an integral part of the battle. Among other things, thousands of wounded and dying soldiers occupied the then open fields that included the Walmart site, which is where many of the Union Army hospital tents were located during the battle.
McPherson also notes that Grant's headquarters were only a quarter mile from the Walmart site and calls it part of the "nerve center" of the Union Army. (Click on the map above to enlarge.)

I would be very happy to see any attempt to build a Walmart on farmland fail, but this sort of last minute preservation hardly ever works. This site is already zoned for commercial use, and there are several other businesses nearby. Preservation has to be done in the trenches of zoning board decisions and planning meetings, and it has to be done years in advance of any actual plan to develop the property. Civil War battles like the Wilderness involved tens of thousands of men and spread out across miles of countryside, and they often involved action at crossroads that are still key nodes of regional road networks. There is already a national park at the Wilderness, which includes the land considered most crucial to understanding and interpreting the battle. Can the people behind this effort draw a boundary around the area they think should be preserved? How do they propose to compensate the people whose property lies within this boundary for the lost value of their land? Do they have a long-term plan for how this part of Orange County should develop? These are all hard questions, and without answers the land will soon be covered with somebody's buildings even if Walmart decides to pull out.

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