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Petersburg Sites Losing Ground.

Civil War sites threatened by suburban sprawl and industry.

PETERSBURG, V A.-- Petersburg is being besieged once again. But this time it is suburban sprawl and industrial development that are encircling the town instead of Ulysses S. Grant's Union Army.

More than 100 battle sites have been identified in the area where a ten-month exchange between Union and Confederate armies eventually led to the end of the Civil War. But only six of the 22 sites deemed nationally significant by Congress are partially or wholly protected within the boundaries of Petersburg National Battlefield. The National Park Service (NPS) is fearful that those areas will be lost to homes and industrial parks because of growing development pressure.

"This isn't another Gettysburg where you have just one site," said park Superintendent Michael Hill. "Petersburg was a whole campaign that lasted months and included many battles."

The same roads and railroads that drew the Union Army to Petersburg in 1864 are enticing industry and residents there today. Petersburg sits within a vital transportation corridor that served as a supply route to the Confederate Army during the Civil War and now provides convenient shipping routes among the South's major cities. Businesses have been eager to relocate where the cost of living is cheaper, and the rural community has welcomed the tax revenue.

One example of development's intrusion is the TXI Chaparral steel plant. When it was approved adjacent to the park in the late 1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stipulated that a 500-foot buffer zone must be maintained. The goals were to provide wetland protection and to hide the plant from the park's view.

The company agreed, and said it would build a trail through the area to enhance the park's interpretative program. However, without notice, the original landowner and Chaparral cut down most of the trees between the plant and the battlefield, leaving a scarred vista visible from the Peebles Farm--one of the 22 nationally significant sites. The Park Service is now in talks with the company to replant the forest.

Having the National Park Service buy and manage the additional 40,000 acres of land that encompass the remaining battle sites is financially unrealistic for the agency, Hill said. Moreover, development pressures are driving up property prices, making it increasingly difficult for the local farm families--some of whom have been there since the time of the Civil War--to hold on to land.

To stem the loss of these historic sites, the Park Service is casting a wide net, hoping to create partnerships with local land and business owners, conservation organizations, and local jurisdictions to help in the effort. To date, the American Farmland Trust and the Civil War Preservation Trust have both expressed interest in working with local landowners to secure conservation easements, and a few already exist.

Hill said the greatest challenges are trying to change zoning laws and getting local residents and businesses to see the value of saving the landscape. Current zoning laws allow a piece of property to be subdivided in a number of ways without public review.

"I think people like the rural lifestyle here," he said. "The problem is that land disappears in such incremental percentages that people don't notice it. Then they wake up one day and realize a huge percentage is gone, and it's too late."

Preserving these battle sites is important not just to the local community but to the nation, argued NPCA Northeast Regional Director Eileen Woodford. "When you walk the ground of a battlefield, no matter what century or war, you are walking in the footsteps of people who were willing to kill or be killed for what they believed," Woodford said.

"While jobs and economic growth are important to any community, of at least equal importance are the marks left on a community by those who built it, and in this case, died trying to preserve it," she added.

TAKE ACTION: Write to the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors asking them to preserve battlefield sites throughout Petersburg by discouraging housing sprawl and industrial development. Ask them to enact stricter zoning laws that require public input and encourage land conservation. Remind them that local development decisions affect more than the Petersburg community because the sites commemorate a turning point in American Civil War history.

Address: Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors, 14016 Boydton Plank Rd., Dinwiddie, VA 23841.
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Title Annotation:development threatens Civil War battle sites in Petersburg, VA
Publication:National Parks
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Jul 1, 2000
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