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.
Although Adams County last year imposed an interchange zoning ordinance along the three Straban interchanges, it was too late to prevent U.S. 30, a key entryway to the borough and battlefield, from becoming a homogenized, stripped-out melange of 20th-century motel and fast-food culture.
"The real tragedy of that strip is that you could be in Waco, Texas, as easily as Adams County," Powell said.
Preservationists are still smarting over the Wal-Mart site, parkingfor which required knocking down a two-story Greek Revival-style brick farmhouse, circa 1840, that was used as a field hospital during the battle.
The farmhouse has been supplanted by Wendy's, circa 1991.
Powell is also concerned about several large brick kilns on the Commons site that were part of a busy turn-of-the-century tile works. The developer has withdrawn an order to demolish the kilns pending an examination by the National Park Service, keepers of the park.
Kostmayer and others are pressing the Park Service to intervene in the shopping center plan, and Davidson expressed concerns in a May 7 letter to Schmoyer about the traffic impact of proposed entrances, storm-water runoff and the view from Benner's Hill.
"We don't want the National Park Service to come off as being anti-development; that's not a realistic stand to take," Davidson said in his office across from the National Cemetery. "We'd like to play a role in seeing that the development is sensitive to the historical resources."
Davidson has also noted that because part of the Commons falls within the historic district, the plan could be subject to review by the state Historic Preservation Office.
Brenda Barrett, the deputy state historic preservation officer, visited the site recently and expressed alarm.
"Route 30 is a goner," Barrett said. "But this is a large development that could have a major impact on largely pristine Hanover Road and a major visual impact on the park."
John Emig, development coordinator for Mark Development Co. in Kingston, Pa., said the company was expecting input from the state and local historical boards.
"We want to keep the project aesthetically consistent with its surroundings," Emig said.
A hearing on the project may be scheduled in July or August, and one of the many interested parties will be Davidson, who is sensitive to the Park Service's image, as well as that of the park.
"We have to plan our battles pretty carefully," said Davidson, a Gettysburg resident for 16 years. "Maybe this is not the one to say do-or-die on."