ORANGE, Va. – Actor Robert Duval, filmmaker Ken Burns and some of the nation's most esteemed historians have defended a Civil War battlefield against Wal-Mart's plans to build a Supercenter near its boundaries.
Now, however, star power is giving way to people with less recognizable names: Lee Frame, Teri L. Pace and R. Mark Johnson, Orange County supervisors who will have the final word on the big box development near the Wilderness Battlefield.
With the endorsement of county planners, Wal-Mart's proposal to build a 138,000-square-foot store within one mile of the battlefield is headed to county supervisors next week, when they are expected to schedule a public hearing. A vote will follow.
Frame, who chairs the board of supervisors, said they are not bound to follow the planners' recommendation, but he was impressed with their thoroughness.
"As I mentioned to the chairman of the Planning Commission earlier, they did a very thorough job of scrubbing the issues," Frame said. "Many of the questions we'll be asking have already been answered through this process."
A majority of the five supervisors is believed to support the Wal-Mart proposal, including Johnson. He has said he's open to persuasion.
After the Planning Commission's 5-4 vote late Thursday, Johnson said, "Certainly nothing tonight caused me to lean the other way."
The commission vote followed a detailed discussion about the economic impact of the store in this county of 32,000 about 50 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and other issues of interest in this rural community. The Wilderness generally took a back seat to issues of traffic and security.
Duval, Burns, hundreds of historians and congressmen from Texas and Vermont have rallied to the preservationists' campaign to shield the battlefield where 29,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were injured or killed 145 years ago. It's also the place where Robert E. Lee first met Ulysses S. Grant in battle.
"I think it's a lousy place to put a Wal-Mart," said Nigel Goodwin, who voted against the special use permit.
"The issue has been one thing: location, location, location," said Walter Smith, who also cast his vote against the permit.
But other members of the commission noted that a fast-food restaurant and strip malls are already on Routes 3 and 20 in Locust Grove near the battlefield entrance.
"Just from an emotional standpoint, I'd love to see history preserved. I'd love a big gate down there," said Will Likins, the commission chairman and one of the five votes for the permit.
"I believe you should respect the dead," he said. "But you have to move forward."
In a statement issued after the meeting, National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe called the commission's vote "disappointing and very problematic."
"The Commission's approval ignores alternate available sites in Orange County, the many local and national voices raised in opposition, and the sanctity of this historic site," Moe added in the statement.
A spokesman for Wal-Mart, Keith Morris, called the commission's recommendation "very significant."
The vote, he said, "just validates the fact that we've done everything that's been asked of us."
Pace, who opposes the Wal-Mart at the proposed location, said she isn't about to call the battle over.
"The board certainly has disagreed with the Planning Commission's recommendations before," she said.