Battle of Gettysburg, Part II: Shopping center skirmish Developers and preservationists clash over view.

July 10, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Gettysburg is under siege, and the struggle is as much over fallow fields as hallowed ground.

Spurred by the widening of a nearby highway and the opening of a Wal-Mart to call its own, this historic town is witnessing unprecedented pressure from developers, one of whom is proposing a 320,000-square-foot shopping center that would abut the Civil War battlefield.

The plan has loosed volleys of displeasure not heard since the Erector-set-like, 330-foot-tall National Tower observation platform was raised nearly a score of years ago.

Gettysburg Borough and the surrounding townships have long been at odds over the nature and amount of development that should be permitted, with some municipal officials contending that the economy has suffered by attempts to keep the park setting pristine.

"There's an attitude toward the park here that's very negative -- even defiant," said Richard H. Schmoyer, planning director for Adams County.

Proposed for a 75-acre site bounded by U.S. 30 and Pa. 116 in adjacent Straban Township, Mark Development Co.'s Gettysburg Commons, featuring 25 to 30 stores, a cinema and 1,900 parking spaces, falls partly within the 12,000-acre federally protected Gettysburg Battlefield Historic District, which encompasses the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park. As a result, Civil War buffs and preservationists are left wondering whether Gen. George Pickett's charge will be remembered as the final, bloodiest confrontation of the fearful Civil War battle or as a method of payment at the new department store.

"We cannot permit the visual desecration of one of the most hallowed sites in America," said Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer, D-Pa., co-sponsor of 1990 legislation that significantly expanded the boundaries of the military park. "There are plenty of places in which to build shopping centers, but allowing one to be built within sight of the Gettysburg battlefield would be a tragic mistake."

At issue is the view of the battlefield and the town from Benner's Hill, a crown of land that, while not a major overlook, affords a vista that hasn't changed much since 1863.

"If they build where they say," said Assistant Park Superintendent Robert E. Davidson, "the shopping center would come into view very dramatically."

Walter L. Powell, Gettysburg Borough's preservation officer, said: "That view is critical. It is part of the historic view shed that should be kept as open as possible."

Others see the proposal differently, including Schmoyer, who has said the shopping center "would not be the worst thing that could happen there."

"There is a history of discouraging growth here, and a price has been paid for it," he said.

In 1989, Adams ranked 59th out of Pennsylvania's 67 counties in average annual wages, far below the other counties in the eastern half of the state. Many service workers live in mobile home parks surrounding the borough.

Three years ago, when Schmoyer arrived, he warned that when widening of U.S. 15 near Gettysburg was completed, there would be massive development pressure at the four local interchanges.

"Few took him seriously then," Powell said. "They do now."

Now, with U.S. 15 serving as a major four-lane highway between Harrisburg and Frederick, Md., the Gettysburg area has become attractive as a bedroom community for those cities, as well as Baltimore and even Washington, 90 driving minutes away.

Wal-Mart, the mammoth discount chain, cited the highway and proximity to Maryland's market among reasons for building on U.S. 30 (York Road) in Straban Township.

Now property owners are keen with anticipation over Wal-Mart's legendary drawing power for shoppers -- and developers.

Dusan Bratic, a Carlisle lawyer who owns 105 acres on U.S. 30 at the U.S. 15 interchange, has proposed building a kind of mother of all war museums, honoring Americans who have fought in conflicts beginning with World War I.

Bratic would not reveal other plans he might have for his property, except to say he was bullish on something being done to help the local economy.

"People these days are looking for more than Gettysburg has to offer," he said. "The historic stuff is fine, but people want something to do at night."

Another itchy landowner is William E. Hutchison, owner of a Pontiac dealership, who has a farm on Route 116 (Hanover Road) that he would like to have zoned for business use.

Hutchison is also chairman of the Straban Township Planning Commission. He said he would have no comment on Gettysburg Commons or any other development proposals.

Nor would Hutchison discuss the fact that Straban, like most of the neighboring townships, has no zoning ordinance. Nor does it have a police force, a fire department or money with which to widen the overburdened U.S. 30, known nationally as the Lincoln Highway.

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