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COMMENTARY: Will Culpeper let outside developers destroy historic farmland?
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COMMENTARY: Will Culpeper let outside developers destroy historic farmland?

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Advocates celebrate the defeat of a Formula One racetrack proposed on Culpeper's Brandy Station battlefield, during a September 1995 picnic at Salubria on State Route 3. From left, they are litigation lawyer Dan Reznek, preservation attorney Tersh Boasberg, historian Clark B. Hall and Richmond resident J.E.B. Stuart IV, a major supporter.

Culpeper was more fought over, marched through and camped upon than any other county during the American Civil War. It has been my privilege to study Culpeper’s wartime experiences for 35 years. Long ago, I arrived at a central judgment: When one studies “Culpeper’s Civil War,” one is principally focused on today’s Stevensburg Magisterial District.

First, let’s discuss geographical icons within this large district.

Our Piedmont’s two great rivers, the Rappahannock and Rapidan, bracket the district and merge 22 miles east of the courthouse. The most heavily-utilized river crossings in the Eastern Theatre of the Civil War are over the district’s rivers--at Kelly’s and Beverly’s fords on the Rappahannock; and Ely’s, Germanna,Morton’s and Raccoon fords on the Rapidan. The most significant crossing on the Hazel River is Welford’s Ford, situated beneath Farley, a historic home on northern Fleetwood Hill.

Fleetwood Hill, Mount Pony, Hansbrough’s Ridge and Stony Point, which all were signal stations and winter-camp platforms, are in the district. The Piedmont’s oldest transportation artery, the Old Carolina Road, traverses the district from Norman’s Ford through Brandy and Stevensburg, and south to Raccoon Ford. The oldest intersection in the county is affixed in the village of Stevensburg, where the Old Carolina merges with Kirtley’s Trail. And, significantly for military purposes, the wartime Orange & Alexandria Railroad--the artery connecting Culpeper with Gordonsville, Richmond, Staunton and Alexandria--passes through the district.

Our nation’s largest cavalry action, the Battle of Brandy Station, was entirely fought in the district, as were the battles of Stevensburg and Kelly’s, Morton’s and Raccoon fords.

During the 1863-1864 winter encampment of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, the bulk of the army camped in the district, with its headquarters located on today’s Wil Spillman farm. The army’s 3rd Corps headquarters was on Fleetwood Hill; the 6th Corps was at Farley; the 5th Corps was at Rappahannock Station; and the 2nd Corps was at Stevensburg, along with the 3rd Cavalry Division. The army’s logistical nerve center was at the Brandy Station railhead, the army’s supply depot.

Now let’s discuss latter-day events in the Stevensburg District.

In the late 1980s, a California developer arrived and proposed that the heart of the Brandy Station battlefield (1,600 acres) be rezoned for commercial usage. His principal political advocate endorsing the rezoning was the Stevensburg District supervisor. And 30 years ago, on July 24, 1990, the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors approved this threshold rezoning.

A local citizens group opposed the massive rezoning of agricultural land and filed suit. Two years later, the developer filed bankruptcy, and sold 500 acres to a New Yorker who proposed an automobile racetrack for the battlefield’s center. The Stevensburg District supervisor endorsed this racetrack and the Board of Supervisors approved the application in February 1994.

A local citizens group filed litigation and the promoter folded his cards in September 1995. A year later, preservation forces bought the rezoned tract for $6.2 million and this acreage was returned to agricultural usage. This land now comprises a portion of Brandy Station Battlefield Park.

Other development threats have emerged since then. The Stevensburg supervisor publicly endorsed an industrial-scale solar plant proposed for 400 historical acres north of Stevensburg along Jonas Run, which was headquarters of the Union army’s 2nd Corps in 1863-1864. This proposal was withdrawn.

Now, other industrial-scale solar projects are proposed for the Stevensburg District. If they are approved, about 3,000 acres of historic landscape near Stony Point and along the Old Carolina and Raccoon Ford roads—much of it open farmland—would be obliterated.

And now we know that the same supervisor who supported the Brandy Station rezoning, 30 years past, had an acknowledged financial interest in one of these industrial-sized solar applications.

Are we to believe the Stevensburg District supervisor is a disinterested party as discussions go forward about the county’s consideration of industrial-scale solar projects?

Are we to accept the wholesale destruction of our farmland and historic landscapes in favor of outside industrial developers?

Culpeper County resident Clark B. Hall, a historian and preservationist, has written widely on the cavalry’s role in the Civil War. He received the American Battlefield Trust’s Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his 25-year effort to protect America’s hallowed ground.

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