Sunday, January 4, 2009

Pave It Over!

Watch out, folks... I feel a "soapbox" rant coming on!

A battle is brewing in Orange County, Virginia, where Wal-Mart is proposing to build a 135,000 square-foot store near the so-called "Wilderness battlefield", part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

The Battle of the Wilderness involved more than 100,000 Union troops and 61,000 Confederates, when it was fought on May 4, 1864. The fighting, according to National Park Service estimates, left more than 4,000 dead and 20,000 wounded.

The parcel of land that Walmart proposes to build on was not part of the actual battlefield, but it is believed to have been a staging area, where Union troops waited around to go into battle, and civil war preservationists say it's an important piece of history.

The land has been zoned for commercial retail use for decades, but lawmakers are split over whether to give Walmart the permit it needs. Some say they'd welcome the business Walmart would bring to Orange County, not to mention the $500,000 annual tax revenue that would flow into the local coffers. Other lawmakers say Walmart would detract from the historic nature of the area and damage tourism.

This is a very familiar argument to me. Back in 1994, I was front and center in covering the controversy when Disney wanted to build a theme park five miles west of the Manassas battlefield. Opponents (who were well-funded by the wealthy residents of Middleburg, Virginia) were able to win the P.R. battle and eventually get Disney to throw up the white flag, even though Disney had won all of the political battles up to that point, including support in the state leguslature.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner told me in a 1996 interview that Disney had pulled out of Virginia because it did not want to continue to fight its battles on the front page of the Washington Post, nor in the courtroom, where opponents were promising to throw legal challenges which would have delayed construction for several years.

Now here's where the soapbox comes in.

Wars happen. We're lucky they haven't happened in the United States in a long time, but they DO happen around the world, and you don't see other countries preserving their battlefields the way we try to preserve them in the U.S.! What parts of Europe are NOT built on top of battlefields? How much more land do preservationists want to preserve? And why should this land, which was nothing more than a waiting room, be preserved?

I get steamed about this because the whole Disney saga was an exercise in hypocrisy. The land opponents were fighting over was not a battlefield - it was farmland located five miles away from Manassas. Opponents complained that Disney would bring strip malls and tacky t-shirt shops to the region, even though the very road that runs adjacent to the Manassas battlefield already had strip malls, convenience stores, and ironically, a huge Walmart less than a mile away.

"Disney's America" would have provided Prince William County with an industry and a tax base. Instead, Prince William largely continues its role as a bedroom community - a place where people go to sleep, but go to work some place else. As a result, with little industry to support the local economy, homeowners largely carry the tax burden there alone. In the current economy, this leaves the local government broke and has created a housing glut as prices have plummeted.

We have thousands of acres of land from Georgia to Pennsylvania preserved to teach our children about the Civil War, as well we should. There are many lessons to be learned from these important properties. But why is every square foot of land ever trod upon by a U.S. soldier worthy of being saved? One lesson that must also be taught is that after the war is over, life goes on. The airport on Long Island that Charles Lindbergh took off from on his flight across the Atlantic is now a shopping mall. At least they named the mall - Roosevelt Field - after the airstrip! Yankee Stadium is about to become a parking lot. Even Ground Zero in New York is being redeveloped into skyscrapers.

Is it really worth denying taxpayers a revenue source to protect a piece of land that is merely near a battlefield? I think my friend, John Butler, has the right idea about preserving land. He suggests, (in jest, I think) that environmentally sensitive land be paved over, in order to preserve it.

Sounds like a plan to me!

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