Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Germanna Foundation, preservation groups differ over Orange Walmart plan

Nonprofit alleges ‘gag agreement’ between retailer and its former Wilderness-battlefield foes; Walmart says not so

The Germanna Foundation, steward of the stories of Virginia Colonial Gov. Alexander Spotswood’s “Enchanted Castle” and Fort Germanna, claims that four preservation groups have had a commitment with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to steer clear of the latest controversy over the retailer’s proposed megastore in Orange County.

The Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies in Virginia Inc. has asked Walmart to proffer changes to its proposal to build a discount store at State Route 3 and Somerset Ridge Road.

The store tract is about a mile east of Gov. Spotswood’s early 18th-century home site and the 1714 fort site where his German settlers established an outpost on the Virginia frontier. (Those overlapping sites are owned by the University of Mary Washington, which I should have made clear in the original  version of this post.)

Tonight, the Orange Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on Walmart’s request for a special-use permit needed under the county’s zoning ordinance to build a “big box” store.

Walmart said Germanna’s claim is baseless.

“The news release from the Germanna Foundation alleging some kind of ‘gag agreement’ between Walmart and several prominent preservation organizations is completely without foundation,” William C. Wertz, director of community and media relations for the company’s Eastern region, said last night.

Three preservation groups disputed the foundation’s statement.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and the Civil War Trust said they had pledged to Walmart not to disclose its confidential business information. But that understanding doesn’t bar them from criticizing Walmart, the groups said.

Germanna said the store’s construction would destroy Civil War earthworks on the Somerset Ridge Road property.

“Why has opposition been so muted?” the foundation’s press release states. (download it here). “Multiple sources have informed the Germanna Foundation that the very preservation groups that had opposed Wal-Mart’s construction at the ‘Wilderness Battlefield site’ in 2010 are signatories to a Wal-Mart confidentiality agreement.

Earlier, Walmart had sought to build a similar store farther east on Route 3 near the Wilderness-battlefield portion of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Its plan brought opposition by the National Park Service, local residents and a coalition of local, state and national preservation groups.

Early this year, on the first day of an Orange Circuit Court trial contesting Orange supervisors’ approval of its plan, Walmart scrapped that effort and pledged to find another, less controversial store site elsewhere in eastern Orange’s Route 3 corridor. The new, 14-acre location, near Germanna Community College’s Locust Grove campus, is about four miles west of the Wilderness store site.  (There is no connection between the Germanna Foundation and Germanna Community College.)

Germanna said an understanding between Walmart and its Wilderness-battlefield opponents bars them from “participating, by action or comment, in the current controversy” over the new store site.

“According to employees within these organizations,” the foundation said, “the Wal-Mart gag agreement binds four of the most storied names in historic preservation: The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Civil War Trust, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield.”

Germanna said it is “alarmed that these nonprofit organizations, with missions of preserving our nation’s history and environment, have abandoned their stewardship responsibilities to their members in response to Wal-Mart’s pressure.”

Asked for comment, the National Trust, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and the Civil War Trust said last night that the foundation’s claim is erroneous.

The three groups issued a statement on Walmart’s current store proposal, found here in its entirety. They supported the company’s selection of the Somerset Ridge site, and urged Orange County to approve its proposal.

The property’s “historic integrity was compromised several years ago by construction of a roadway, a utility right of way, and a large stormwater pond,” the groups stated. “Under the circumstances–-and within the broader context of Walmart’s decision to relocate its development–-our organizations believe that this is a more suitable location for Walmart’s proposed Superstore.”

In addition, in an email to The Free Lance-Star last night, the groups said:

“– The Germanna Foundation’s attack is misdirected and inaccurate.

“– We have no gag agreement with Walmart, as should be obvious from the vociferous advocacy of our organizations to date.

“– While we understand the Germanna Foundation’s concerns, we stand by the views expressed in the joint statement.

“– We did make a commitment to Walmart that we would we would not release any confidential business information they chose to provide to us, but that didn’t prohibit us in any way from criticizing Walmart.

“– Instead, the non-disclosure agreement allowed the open dialogue between the preservation organizations and Walmart which helped to save the battlefield and National Park from incompatible over-development.”

The Piedmont Environmental Council did not respond last night to the newspaper’s request for comment.

The Germanna Foundation asked Wal-Mart and the groups to release the wording of the claimed “confidentiality agreement and any side agreements.”

“Public disclosure of these agreements will go far in explaining acts of omission and commission in allowing Virginia’s heritage to fall to the bulldozer. We call upon Wal-Mart to free these groups to return to their core mission,” said Karen Quanbeck, the foundation’s executive director.

Germanna said Wal-Mart’s site Somerset Ridge plan would demolish more than 400 feet of Civil War trenches and the site of a Union army encampment.

Germanna said Orange County historian Frank Walker has described Wal-Mart’s shift from the Wilderness site to the Germanna site as moving from “hallowed ground” to “sacred soil” because the latter tract is not far from the locations of Fort Germanna and Spotswood’s estate as well as Germanna Ford, where the Union army under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Rapidan River before the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.

Walker said the area was occupied three times, by both Union and Confederate forces, within a year, the foundation said.

If its plan is approved by Orange County supervisors, Walmart’s store would occupy part of Orange builder Mansour Azmipour’s Germanna Heights development, a 100-acre project that includes apartments, townhouses and a medical office  building.

Walmart bought the old, 51-acre Wilderness store site from its former development partner, and has promised to preserve the property. It has not detailed its plans for the acreage.

The Germanna Foundation owns 279  acres  on the south side of  Route 3, west of the proposed Walmart site, from the Rapidan River to Flat Run Road. It is  part of  the area settled by German immigrants who were lured across the Atlantic Ocean by Gov.  Spotswood. Orange County historian Ann Miller has called the foundation property “one of the  most significant historic  sites” in the nation.

In 1969, the foundation donated 100 acres to the state for Germanna Community College’s original Locust Grove campus. Next to the college, the foundation operates a visitor center for travelers interested in the Germanna settlement and Spotswood.