Wal-mart Wilderness Case Finally Over
By Scott C. Boyd
(June 2011 Civil War News)

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ORANGE, Va. — The lawsuit filed to prevent the construction of a Wal-mart Supercenter at the entrance to the Wilderness battlefield has finally ended after 20 months of litigation.

Orange County Circuit Court Judge Daniel R. Bouton signed the final order dismissing the case on May 12, after all parties agreed to the terms.

The suit was originally filed against the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ (BOS) on Sept. 23, 2009, by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and six residents of Orange and Spotsylvania Counties who lived near the proposed Wal-mart site at the intersection of State Routes 3 and 20.

This location is considered the gateway to the Wilderness battlefield, where Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant first met in battle in May 1864.

Historic preservation groups were up in arms over the announcement that Wal-mart wanted to build a large store there.

The suit challenged the legality of the Aug. 25, 2009, BOS decision to grant the special use permit required for the 138,000-square-foot store.

On April 29, 2010, Bouton dropped the National Trust from the case when he ruled they lacked standing.

Bouton added Wal-mart, developer JDC Ventures LLC, and property owner 3 & 20 Limited Partnership as additional defendants in the case based on a motion from the plaintiffs filed May 6, 2010, and agreed to by the prospective new defendants.

Trial was scheduled to begin this past Jan. 25 and was scheduled for up to eight days on the court docket.

Eleventh-hour consultations and filings delayed the start of the trial by two days.

A last-minute decision by Wal-mart to cancel plans for the store halted the trial on Jan. 26, the morning before it was rescheduled to begin.

That’s when Bouton read aloud a prepared statement given to him by Wal-mart’s attorneys that day in which Wal-mart pledged to buy the site in question, but not develop it; compensate Orange County for legal and administrative costs related to the project; and to look for a new store site in the county.

Subsequently, Wal-mart has been busy acting on its promises, buying the land, which it did for $3.5 million — $2 million went to the property owner and $1.5 million to the developer; reimbursing Orange County for its administrative and legal expenses of $717,000; and continuing to search for a site.

There was an ongoing dispute over Wal-mart’s claim that it would not develop the property, which delayed agreement on the final order closing the case.

According to plaintiffs’ attorney Robert D. Rosenbaum, Wal-mart attorney Melissa W. Riley asked Judge Bouton to dismiss the case based on Wal-mart’s Jan. 26 statement that it would not pursue the original project.

In a March 29 letter to Bouton, Rosenbaum objected to dismissing the suit. He expressed concern that Wal-mart’s public statements and a proposed order to dismiss the lawsuit were not sufficient to invalidate the special use permit which allowed Wal-mart to build the store on the contested site.

The final order Bouton signed on May 12 culminates with the statement: “By signing below, all parties stipulate and agree that Wal-mart has abandoned its rights to develop under Special Use Permit 08-07.”

The plaintiffs got more than just a promise from Wal-mart: By formally abandoning its rights under the special use permit (SUP), Wal-mart can no longer legally build the proposed store on the disputed site.

Still, the plaintiffs did not get a legally-binding assurance from Wal-mart that it would preserve the disputed land.

“That was not part of the lawsuit,” according to Rosenbaum. “The lawsuit was a challenge to the SUP. The SUP is now gone. We’re hopeful that Wal-mart will do something formal that will embody the commitment it made in its public announcement.”

Wal-mart Director of Community and Media Relations-East, William C. Wertz, stated: “We are delighted that this matter has been resolved in a way that balances the need to preserve America’s history with the need to continue the economic development so important in creating jobs and improving our local communities.”

Zann Nelson, president of Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, said: “A challenging chapter in the Wilderness Battlefield story has come to a close. We are grateful to Wal-mart for its efforts to preserve this special ground and now eager to work shoulder to shoulder with the county to realize the potential for our shared future.”

Orange County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak struck a different note: “The case did not have merit to begin with, and we believe that, had trial been completed, the County would have prevailed. It is unfortunate that the Plaintiffs sued. Causing expensive legal battles is not a productive way to address balancing historic preservation with other land use and economic development issues.”