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Fighting for piece of history

January 4, 2004 1:15 am


Preservation of farmland surrounding Elwood mansion in the Wilderness battlefield is a National Park Service priority.

Area's Civil War sites surrounded by development

RELATED: More than history buffs' haven

In 1987, much of the land bordering the Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House battlefields was populated by more whitetail deer than people.

A lot has changed in the 17 years since the National Park Service adopted its general management plan for the battlefields.

Today, one of the biggest challenges is preservation in the face of relentless growth.

Dozens of subdivisions and commercial centers have sprung up within a pistol shot of the park's nearly 8,000 acres, scattered across the city and the counties of Spotsylvania, Orange, Stafford and Caroline. As the region's booming growth presses on, land with historical significance is being snapped up for homes and stores as the park areas themselves become islands of green in a sea of rooftops and asphalt.

"It's happening in a lot of places. Here, we are right on the front edge of development from a major urban area," said Russ Smith, who took over five months ago as superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He sees plenty of challenges ahead.

The clash between preservation and growth came into sharp focus last spring when the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors turned down a developer's plan to build a large retail and commercial project on John Mullins' 800-acre farm. The land, along State Route 3 just east of the battlefield park, was part of the 1863 Chancellorsville campaign.

Preservationists hailed the decision as a great victory, but it was short-lived: Mullins in October won final approval for a smaller project on 273 acres known as the Ashley-Orrock tract, part of the Lick Run Element where Gen. Robert E. Lee crossed after the battle.

"If you're standing on an important battlefield site and see townhouses in the distance, it's going to affect your feeling for that place," Smith said in a recent interview.

It's more than just aesthetics: "You have a harder time imagining what it might have been like" for the soldiers in gray and blue who fought and died here.

Shared vision

The park management plan is being updated to reflect, among other things, the realities of land use in an increasingly urban area.

And, Smith said, he'd like to see more coordination and cooperation among interested parties.

"We would like to do some joint planningto come up with a common vision of the future so it doesn't get us into an us-against-them situation. Nobody gains from that."

Smith sees the Park Service's role as educator to local officials and developers. "We can serve as advisers about what's critical and what's not" when it comes to assessing the historical value of land outside the park boundary. "Some areas are not as critical as other areas, and we have the information and the historians to help people make better choices."

Smith sees his office working more with county officials to flag such areas for inclusion in comprehensive plans and "to help them understand where the greatest impacts [of development] happen and how they can help to maintain the battlefields."

At each battlefield here, subdivisions back up to park boundaries.

A planned development off State Route 208 behind the McGee farm probably will be visible to visitors to the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield's Bloody Angle, where Union and Confederate troops clashed in brutal hand-to-hand combat in May 1864.

Over the past 20 years, the battlefield park has grown from 5,000 acres to roughly 8,000 acres, as congressional leaders have worked to save endangered Civil War sites. The boundaries can be adjusted only by Congress.

"Unfortunately, the battles did not stay neatly within the park boundary," Smith noted.

When the last park management plan was drawn up, "these pressures were just beginning," Smith said. Consequently, the Park Service has moved to acquire as much as possible of the most significant sites. Thousands of acres of important, but less historically significant, land borders the park's present boundaries.

"Our goal was to hold onto key areas," Smith said. In 1998 the Park Service bought 40 acres in the heart of the Chancellorsville battlefield, the site of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's famous flank attack on Union forces. "It looked like an area that would be quickly developed and was critical to the story" of the battle, Smith said. In May 2002 it purchased 462 acres in Fawn Lake owned by NTS/Virginia Development Co. to add to the Wilderness battlefield in western Spotsylvania. The $6.1 million purchase was the largest in that park's history.

"Both Chancellorsville and Wilderness are vulnerable, and we hope that as that area develops that we can work with developers" to mitigate the impact on the park, Smith said.

If the Outer Connector around Fredericksburg is ever built, it would require road-widening in that area, and bring with it more development.

The top priority for new acquisitions is at Ellwood on the Wilderness battlefield. Smith said the Park Service would like to buy several parcels around the site where Stonewall Jackson's right arm, amputated in a field hospital there after his wounding, is buried near the Spotsylvania-Orange county line.

At Spotsylvania Court House, "We own the core of the battlefield. People can get a real sense of what it was like during the battle. There's a certain solitude that can be found there," Smith said.

There is some concern that a bypass planned around the courthouse area could spawn development that would affect the park.

The Park Service, Smith said, continues to buy small, privately owned tracts within the battlefields when it can, but there is little federal money available for purchases.

'Special responsibility'

The federal government cannot do it alone, Smith said.

The Ashley-Orrock tract is a good example of the fact that important land not within the park boundaries is in play.

"There's not a question of if it's going to be developed, but how to develop it sensitively to respect the history of the land, and that is a special responsibility of local government," Smith said.

"These battlefields are national resources that belong to everybody, but the local area has special responsibility for stewardship. What local government does has a very big impact on the battlefields and what happens around them," he said.

Hap Connors, a preservationist and a Spotsylvania supervisor, said efforts on both sides could be improved.

"We could talk about mistakes of the past, but I'm more interested in moving forward. I see us, the county, as having a huge role in not only preserving these treasures because it's right to do so, but also the economic value to the county," Connors said.

Land-use matters are a double-edged sword for localities which, on one hand, want to preserve historical resources and promote tourism while at the same time encouraging economic development.

"People are not saying stop growth. That's not realistic. They want us to manage it better," Connors said.

He said that neither the Park Service nor the county has done a good job of marketing the battlefields to tourists who come from all over the world to visit.

Additions may be needed in the county's comprehensive plan, Connors said, "that take into consideration the battlefields and how the county is to look in the next 20 years or so. And we have an obligation to bring people to the table, including the Park Service."

Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust in Washington, said what's happening here is playing out in fast-growing areas around the country.

"A lot of the battles were fought over 19th-century roads and near small towns. Now, in the 21st century, these roads are major arteries and the villages have become cities and that is putting pressure on the parks," Campi said.

Last February, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Chancellorsville as the third-most-endangered battlefield in the country. And the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield was added to a list of 15 sites in danger of being lost to sprawl.

Localities, Campi said, can do a better job of protecting historic areas by retooling zoning ordinances and working with the federal government and with preservation groups.

The creation of historic districts and historic overlays is another tool.

Innovative approach

As for land acquisition, Campi said, some innovative ideas have worked elsewhere.

For example, Frederick County puts money into a fund to acquire open space. That is matched by nonprofit groups and by the federal government.

"Of course," Campi conceded, "land values are substantially higher in the Fredericksburg area, so it makes it more difficult to buy land."

Said Campi, "Our priority remains trying to hammer out a compromise on the Mullins property and to see some of that preserved."

He said the trust earlier this year tried to buy about 80 acres next to the Spotsylvania battlefield. The land was purchased by the Silver Cos., the Fredericksburg area's largest developer.

Still, "What we're trying to do is to forge compromises" with the development industry, Campi said.

In 2002, developers of the proposed Whitehall project along Brock Road in Spotsylvania met with Park Service officials and members of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. They agreed to donate 181 acres along Jackson Trail East to the trust.

Another example is in Prince William County, where Dallas-based Centex Homes decided in March to give 127 acres of a 341-acre tract for a battlefield park at Bristoe Station. The land, southwest of Manassas, was the scene of fighting in 1862 and 1863 and was unprotected by the county, the state government or the Park Service.

Centex sought out a number of preservation groups when it announced its development plans there.

Centex spokesman Neil Devroy said the approach makes good business sense. In the case of Bristoe Station, the battlefield connection is a marketing tool.

"You have the opportunity to live in an area that has historical significance, at the same time knowing that your community is preserving it. That is very attractive to buyers."

To reach RUSTY DENNEN: 540/374-5431

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