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By CLINT SCHEMMER
The Wilderness Walmart case looks to be the latest proof that when big-box stores take on preservationists in Virginia, they face formidable foes.
In local residents' recent memory, Walmart swore it would build a Supercenter at George Washington's boyhood home in Stafford, only to scrap its plan when another site was offered nearby.
In Warrenton, officials rejected a couple of store sites until Walmart found one to their liking. Its change of heart didn't come easily, either.
In historic Chestertown, Md., Walmart's store plans hit a buzz saw of opposition that fueled a 9-year-long court battle, which it lost.
But more often, the giant retailer prevails.
One industry analyst said yesterday that said it is rare for Walmart to back away from a store once it has researched a location and chosen a site.
Burt P. Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group said Walmart may have wanted to avoid a protracted public-relations mess when its sales are disappointing Wall Street and the Arkansas-based company faces increased competition.
Its decision about the Wilderness project was based on "practical business reasons," Flickinger said, and harks back to founder Sam Walton's credo that Walmart should never build a store where it isn't wanted.
"To the company's credit, they decided to do something different," said Flickinger, a Walmart shareholder.
Robert Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Wilderness lawsuit, lauded Walmart's change of mind, which he said surprised everyone.
"I think this was the right decision for them to make," he said. "The preservation community is looking forward to working with Walmart and with the county to come up with a way of preserving the site for posterity."
His firm, Arnold & Porter of Washington, volunteered its services in the case.
"I hope this sends a message not only to Walmart but to other developers that the preservation community is willing to fight for historic sites," Rosenbaum said.
He said he had looked forward to litigating the case, and was confident the plaintiffs, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and six Orange and Spotsylvania residents, would have won.
"We had 26 witnesses all lined up and ready to go, including the superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, the head of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and others," he said. "We would have made a very strong case, but we much prefer this outcome."
Yesterday, Circuit Judge Daniel R. Bouton complimented both legal teams' "very vigorous" representation of their clients, and noted that neither side had conceded anything.
As in the Ferry Farm controversy, the foes didn't even agree on how historic--or not--the property is.
In 2008 at Ferry Farm, long after Walmart moved on, archaeologists announced they had found the foundations of the Washington family's home--with many thousands of revealing artifacts--in the vicinity of where the retailer planned to build its shopping center.
Yesterday, Walmart was emphatic that it will save the Wilderness site.
"We're going to make sure it's not commercially developed and is preserved for future generations," said William C. Wertz, divisional director for media relations.
Wertz said Walmart, working with county officials, will swiftly find and develop another site along State Route 3. "We want to build a store here in Orange County," he said. "We've had a very productive and positive relationship with the county. They've been very cooperative with us. It's a very business-friendly environment here."
Two congressmen who opposed Walmart, Vermont Democrat Peter Welch and Texas Republican Ted Poe, hailed its turnabout. Thousands of Vermont and Texas troops perished in the Battle of the Wilderness.
Hundreds of historians, including Pulitzer Prize- winner James McPherson and filmmaker Ken Burns and celebrities such as Robert Duvall had appealed to Walmart to walk away from the property and find another place to build in Orange.
Historians view the battle, the first between Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, as a critical point when the Civil War started to turn in favor of the North. The war ended 11 months later. Some 185,000 Union and Confederate troops fought over three days in the Wilderness, leaving 30,000 killed, injured or missing.
"The Wilderness battlefield is a sacred site for Vermonters, Texans and all Americans," Reps. Welch and Poe said. "We appreciate Walmart's decision to build elsewhere and we applaud the leadership and advocacy of those who fought to preserve this important national landmark."
Civil War Trust spokesman Jim Campi also complimented the company. "We're going to seize this opportunity to step back and work with the county and Walmart to ensure that this battlefield is protected in the best interests of everyone concerned," he said.
Rosenbaum and Zann Nelson, president of Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield, said preservationists look forward to discussions with the county and Walmart and hope that they'll support the coalition's renewed effort at community planning in the Wilderness gateway area.
--Associated Press writer Steve Szkotak contributed to this story.
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029