Civil War battlesite is at heart of property rights dispute
YORK COUNTY -- The file is full of wonk -- eye-glazing zoning terms, cryptic military acronyms, catchy historic preservation slogans.
At the heart of it, though, is a 250-acre tangle of towering trees and humming cicadas off Colonial Parkway, where conflict seems drawn to the very land.
Owned since the 1970s by a Maryland family, the property is caught in a dilemma that's all too familiar in this part of Virginia, where you can't swing a stick without hitting some history, or a military installation.
The owners want to sell to the highest bidder, which could turn out to be a developer. Trouble is, the place was the scene of a Civil War battle, and history buffs are clamoring for it to be preserved. Right next door, and also in the fray: the Navy's Cheatham Annex, where specialized troops train for war and rooftops aren't welcome near the perimeter.
The Navy says it's not inclined to buy the land, and local preservationists say they can't afford it. Even with its warts -- the parcel has serious access problems -- it's assessed at $2.3 million.
So the two stakeholders joined forces, asking York County to strip the property of its "mixed-use overlay" designation -- a category of land planning that's a plus for future building. Losing that might do more than just ward off bulldozers; it could push the landowner to lower his price.
Last week, county supervisors voted 3-2 to not only keep the "mixed-use" in place, but expand it to a neighboring parcel owned by Anheuser Busch.
Capt. Lowell Crow, commanding officer of the annex and Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, left the meeting visibly upset. Preservationists loitered in the foyer, stunned.
"What they just did reduced the possibility of preservation to near-extinction," said Drew Gruber, a member of a small, grassroots group called the Williamsburg Battlefield Trust. "Looks to me like they just don't care."
Matt Egger, whose father was given the land as part of a retirement package, felt vindicated by the vote.
"I want to sell it for what it's worth," he said.
Egger did not want to be quoted further, but he agreed to share his views. Egger, a lawyer, said he sees himself as a reasonable man whose rights were being threatened. He said he's willing to sell to anyone who offers fair market value.
Subdivisions and shopping centers have erased most traces of the Battle of Williamsburg, one of the Civil War's first full-blown clashes. It took place at the narrowest spot on the Peninsula, and its network of earthen redoubts once sprawled across parts of today's Upper York County, James City County and Williamsburg.
On the scale of Civil War casualties, the Battle of Williamsburg was minor, a footnote largely forgotten today in the Historic Triangle, where the Revolutionary War is king. Interstate 64 bored through the site 50 years ago.
But on a rainy afternoon in May 1862, some of the era's most famous warriors fought there -- George Custer, Jubal Early, Winfield Scott Hancock, Joseph Hooker -- and a substantial redoubt still etches Egger's property, the last remnant of respectable size.
More important, hundreds of fallen soldiers were buried on the spot. The North exhumed its dead in the aftermath, but many Confederates remained -- in unmarked graves that, to preservationists, make the property hallowed ground.
Similar stories play out across Virginia, the backdrop for many of America's milestones and struggles. In the Civil War alone, 123 of the 384 principal battles took place here.
No. 2, Tennessee, had only 38.
Add in the state's Colonial history, and it's not surprising that Virginians regularly lock horns. Preservationists wrestle with the put-up-a-marker-and-move-on ranks. Localities grapple with the rights of property owners and the needs of now.
The military's presence can up the rub, and Virginia is thick with installations. Development near active bases -- Oceana Naval Air Station and Fentress Auxiliary Landing Field, to name two -- is a chronic burr.
Egger's property butts up to the Navy annex and isn't far from the weapons station. Spanning 16,000 heavily wooded acres, both have become hubs for expeditionary and special operations training.
One Marine FAST company -- Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team -- is based at Yorktown, and two more are scheduled to move there from South Hampton Roads. A Virginia Beach construction company recently won a $14 million contract to build their support facilities.
"Encroachment is our issue, not history," said Mark Piggott, a public affairs officer for the Navy.
Worst-case scenario: a residential project on Cheatham's doorstep. Homes full of televisions and cellphones spew electrical emissions that could interfere with certain types of exercises conducted there, Piggott said.
The Navy isn't offering more details, but at least two admirals have sent letters to York County, asking its supervisors to restrict future development near the installation. Crow, calling Cheatham "essential to today's defense strategy," specifically requested the removal of Egger's "mixed-use" designation.
Egger says the Navy should just buy his property, but Crow says the military purchases only the minimum amount of real estate required for its mission. There is money for buffers -- a fund called Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative, or REPI -- but it can't be paid to private landowners. Only nonprofit or government entities are eligible.
A solution could lie with The Civil War Trust, a national nonprofit with deeper pockets than local groups.
The trust has 55,000 donating members and owns a small piece of the Williamsburg battlefield, a single acre on the far side of the site from Egger's place.
That acre was purchased with the help of the state. Legislation passed in 2010 created a Civil War Preservation Fund, the first of its kind in the country. The state fund doles out a dollar for every one that nonprofits can raise for a project.
"I think 32 sites have been protected, thanks to this program," said Mary Koik, a spokeswoman for the trust.
But most old Civil War sites are on their own. Only 60 or so of the war's major battlefields are under National Park Service jurisdiction, and many of the rest slip steadily into the past.
An advisory committee surveying sites for Congress in the 1990s rated Williamsburg's battle "Class B" -- not epic, but decisive in the context of its campaign. The park service says Egger's property would make the cut for the National Register of Historic Places.
The trust says it's interested in buying the land, if a workable deal can be struck -- one likely to tap into that state grant fund.
In the meantime, the group will continue its pitch to persuade localities such as York to step up. The trust turns out studies and pamphlets with slogans like "Blue and Gray Makes Green."
Battlefields, surreal as it would seem to the dead, are marketed as assets to communities -- draws for "heritage tourism," and green space that boosts property values.
But York, the setting of the British surrender to George Washington, is loaded with historically sensitive land, and its supervisors say the "frugal" county can't afford to bankroll a Civil War park.
Redoubts from the 1781 surrender were part of a golf course before the feds stepped in to save them in the 1930s.
Property taxes are another issue. More than half the county's land is already exempt -- owned by the Department of Defense, the park service, utilities and the like. If the trust buys Egger's land, and covers it with the typical easements, "this would be another big piece off the tax rolls," said Supervisor Don Wiggins.
Egger's parcel wouldn't be simple to develop. It's hemmed in on all sides, with no access off the parkway or the interstate. Getting to it requires driving down a mile-long gravel road that runs through Busch property.
But the neighborhood, near Water Country USA, is desirable: In 2005, Egger sold a 36-acre piece of the battlefield for $1.3 million. On the west side of I-64, it's now dotted with houses.
So far, he says, no one has put a formal offer on the table. He says that he'd like to see the battlefield survive, but that he's more concerned about his family's welfare, and he thinks most people in his position would feel the same way.
Basically, he said, it's like this:
If you want to sell your house, you shouldn't have to take a hit just because the military is on your doorstep, or some history happened in your backyard.