Officials Approve Wal-Mart Near Va. Battlefield

After much controversy, officials in central Virginia approved plans to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter early Tuesday near one of the nation's most historic Civil War battlefields. The plan has caused quite a stir in the surrounding community and across the nation.

Hundreds of preservationists, politicians and local residents congregated at Orange County High School Monday evening to opine on whether a Wal-Mart Supercenter should be built near the Wilderness battlefield in central Virginia.

In a 4-1 vote, the Orange County Board of Supervisors granted a permit to the world's biggest retailer, according to The Associated Press. Wal-Mart said construction could begin in a year.

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Those who descended on the event were not afraid to show their colors, some donning attire from the Civil War and others wearing the Wal-Mart smiley face, among other costumes.

In the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, you might think that a company's proposal to build a superstore that would generate more than 300 jobs and around $500,000 annually in new tax revenues would be greeted with open arms.

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But you'd be wrong. In this area, the proposal triggered fightin' words.

On the same ground where a Civil War battle was fought almost a century and a half ago, Wal-Mart waged a fight to build a new superstore. But the proposal was met with opposition from around the country, with Washington lawmakers and Hollywood actors trying to fend off the company's plans.

The issue has been the superstore's proximity to the Wilderness battlefield, where on May 5, 1864, more than 160,000 soldiers fought a battle in the midst of the Civil War.

Critics say the new Wal-Mart would be too close to the battlefield. Not to mention, Wal-Mart already has four stores in a 20-mile radius of the area. Multiple state leaders, including Gov. Tim Kaine, have come down against the proposed site for the store.

In a July 13 letter to the board of supervisors, Kaine, along with House of Delegates Speaker William Howell, a Republican, wrote, "[W]e strongly encourage your board to work closely with Wal-Mart to find an appropriate alternative site for the proposed retail center in the vicinity of the proposed site yet situated outside the boundaries of Wilderness Battlefield and out of the view of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park."

Lawmakers from other states, such as Rep. Pete Welch, D-Vt., have also weighed in with their opposition. Welch became involved because more than 1,200 soldiers from Vermont died in a single day on the battlefield.

"A shopping center? That's not quite what we had in mind to honor their memories," he said in an interview with ABC News.

Welch wants Wal-Mart to take the store somewhere else.

"Can Wal-Mart move its store down the road 10 miles and create the same jobs? The answer is yes -- it just creates a little effort and a little inconvenience," he said. "I don't think their future depends on paving over battlefields of extraordinary historical significance."

Out-of-Towners and Celebrities Oppose Wal-Mart's Plans

In February, Welch and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, wrote a letter of opposition to Wal-Mart president Lee Scott. Even actor Robert Duvall got in on it, joining forces with Welch and Poe.

The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition also made a similar request in January, stating, "We firmly believe that encouraging Wal-Mart to move to an alternative location is in the best interests of both the National Park and Orange County residents."

However, a Wal-Mart spokesman argued that it is out-of-towners like Welch and Duvall -- and not the residents of Orange County -- that are making a lot of noise against the proposal.

"There's no real local opposition to it," spokesman Keith Morris told ABC News. "By and large, the opposition is not from the county, not even from the state of Virginia."

Moreover, he noted, Wal-Mart officials have been in regular contact with county representatives ever since the company initially launched its effort to move there. Told that there was a void in the county for a general supply store, the company was directed to the proposed site, which is zoned for commercial use.

"Whether it's Wal-Mart or something else, something is going to get built there," Morris said.

After the initial talks, Wal-Mart then held a series of summits to discuss the site. The company met with a number of preservation groups, at one point taking a tour of the battlefield site. The company also conducted an open house last fall, hosting more than 100 people in a local high school gym.

"Not one person at that meeting raised any concerns about: why are you building so close to the battlefield?" Morris recalled.

Asked why there was not more local opposition, Morris replied, "It's called the Wilderness battlefield site for a reason -- it's thick, thick woods. It's absolutely impossible to see the site that we're developing from the battlefield. So how would it possibly impact the visitors' experience? You wouldn't know it's there unless you drove right by it."

The Virginia dispute is hardly the first one in which Wal-Mart has been embroiled. The company has fought hard for proposed stores in places around the country, including Lawrence, Kan.; Rapid City, S.D.; Canfield, Ohio; Beaufort, S.C.; Cordova, Tenn. and Chicago.

Last month, the company organized a rally for its proposed store on the South Side of Chicago, paying for buses to take around 200 people from the proposed site in Chatham to City Hall for a demonstration. Proponents contend that the proposal would create jobs and help residents, citing the positive effects that the city's only other Wal-Mart has had on the Austin neighborhood.

But the Virginia issue has attracted national attention. Now, one board supervisor just wants the modern-day conflict to end, already. In recent months, R. Mark Johnson, whose panel is preparing to vote on the proposal later this month, has heard from people from Colorado to New Hampshire pleading with him to oppose the store.

Wal-Mart Vote: Board Members Lean Towards Approving Proposal

But most board members are leaning towards voting in favor of the proposal, he noted.

"In an economic downturn like this you kind of have to lower the bar a bit in terms of any project like this because any kind of economic activity is good at this point," Johnson said.

"When it's one of the world's largest companies that wants to come in, that's something that has to be looked at as a good thing," he stated, although he noted that he had not yet made up his mind.

Today, the two-year battle will finally come to an end when the county board will hold a public hearing before voting on the proposal.

"You'll see some jawing," Johnson predicted. "Some verbal fireworks."

But the end of the modern-day conflict comes not a moment too soon for him.

"It's time," he said, "to put it to bed."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.