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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Virginians Versus Disney

Air Date: Week of

Thomas Lalley reports from the rolling hills of Piedmont, Virginia on a planned project by the Magic Kingdom people that some residents find less than magical. Disney Corporation's proposed historical theme park will bring jobs and 200 million dollars in infrastructure improvement to the area. But some local environmentalists think the project will cause suburban sprawl and turn the area into another Los Angeles.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the Civil War began, many on both sides thought it would be a relatively short and bloodless affair. But those hopes were dashed by a fierce battle in the Virginia countryside just outside Washington. The first Battle of Bull Run gave the split nation its first real taste of the deep suffering that lay ahead. Today, another battle is raging in the area, over a plan by the Disney Corporation to build an American history theme park in the middle of the still rural Virginia Piedmont. The site is ideal for Disney. Along with its Civil War legacy, the area was home to revolutionary patriots Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Few places in America are as rich in history. Supporters of the park say it'll bring badly needed jobs to the region, but critics says they would come at far too high a cost. Thomas Lalley reports.

(Running water)

LALLEY: Little Bull Run courses through a small farm near the town of Haymarket. It's in the heart of the Piedmont: a 75-mile-wide swath of rolling green hills that runs through the middle of Virginia. The surrounding fields like fallow and the turn-of-the-century barn is empty. To a casual observer, the farm is a reminder of the Piedmont's past, but to the Disney Corporation, it's a symbol of the future.

REYNOLDS: We're standing near the entrance to the 100-acre park. It's not clear whether you'll enter into, um, Crossroads USA, a mid-18th century mill town, or whether it might be a more Jeffersonian temple saluting the ideals and principles that have held America together. Our imagineers are just pulling up to the drafting table.

LALLEY: Mary Ann Reynolds is a spokesperson for Disney's America, the Walt Disney Corporation's proposed theme park scheduled to open here in 1998. Walking through the deep mud of former corn fields, Reynolds enthusiastically lays out Disney's vision for the farm. Within 2 decades, 3,000 acres of land will be transformed to accommodate 2,500 new houses, over 1,300 hotel rooms, and 2 million square feet of retail space, on top of the theme park, which is expected to draw 11 million visitors a year. For Disney, this is the ideal location. It's near the lucrative Washington tourist market, and in the middle of the land that fostered the nation.

REYNOLDS: An American history park belongs here in Virginia, where so much of America's history began. Probably Thomas Jefferson and George Washington sloshed through some clay fields like this, too, don't you bet?

LALLEY: But this field and many others like it will disappear with the building of Disney's America. And that has some area residents concerned. Gillman lives down a gravel road near the Disney site. The road runs through thick forests of oak and hickory, broken up by a few small farms. Gillman and her husband came to Haymarket because it was close to his job in suburban Washington, but still very much the country.

GILLMAN: We get a ton of birds. We got bird feeders up front. And we get the geese, and we sit out here quite often, and the geese will fly over. You can hear their wings flapping, they're so low.

LALLEY: The Disney site lies directly in between Gillman's house and the mountains to the West. She worries that light and noise pollution will be a daily nuisance. Gillman and some of her neighbors are trying to block Disney's America.

GILLMAN: The thing that got me worried about this to begin with was the mock air battles, plus the explosions. They're gonna have the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, and I understand there are going to be fireworks every night. So I figure, uh, whereas I don't have any lights now, I'm gonna have Disney's fireworks and their mock air battles.

(Cash register: "Four dollars and 14 cents.")

LALLEY: With a population of 375, Haymarket is the kind of town you're likely to miss driving through it. Its busiest spot may be Gossam's Hardware Store. The counter at Gossam's is plastered with pictures of locals displaying the 6-point buck they shot last season, or the 20-inch bass caught last summer. Gossam's owner, Tim Everett, is a staunch supporter of Disney and of the almost $200 million in infrastructure improvements the state and county government have promised to help make the project happen.

EVERETT: Disney is gonna provide a return. Not only in amenities in the neighborhood, like things that we can go and enjoy, like the recreational activities, but in tax base, tax revenue coming in, jobs created. All types of ancillary businesses that will be opportunities for, you know, businesses around Disney that will spring up. So we're looking at a tremendous return on any investment.

LALLEY: Virginia's investment is expected to reap the state over 12,000 new jobs and just under a billion dollars in tax revenue over the next 30 years. But the Disney project will accelerate the process of change in the Piedmont. Already, strip malls and tract housing have crept into some parts of Prince William County, where Haymarket is located. But critics say the county is not equipped to handle the development boom that Disney's America is expected to trigger.

ELLIOT: Haymarket is the wrong place for Disney's America.

LALLEY: Bob Elliot is the president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, the most powerful citizen's group fighting Disney's decision to come to Haymarket. He points to a map of northern Virginia, where large areas of Prince William County are zoned for intense development.

ELLIOT: I think it demonstrates very well how over-planned northern Virginia is. What the general summary [word?] of Virginia have done in response to Disney and in response to the governor is take a step that I think sort of irrevocably starts the national Capitol region into spreading out and becoming another Los Angeles.

LALLEY: Elliot's group encourages denser developments centered around areas that are already urbanized. This would use resources more efficiently and preserve open space. Areas that are increasingly rare and valuable in the national Capitol area. But where critics see sprawl, the Prince William County government sees progress.

BECKER: I sort of feel that it makes a lot more sense to move the industries and the businesses out away from the city, where, closer to where people live.

LALLEY: William Becker is a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Long ago, the Board decided to zone some areas for intense development. Becker says that the Disney project will make Prince William County more financially stable.

BECKER: Disney's just one case. Our people are paying high taxes now, the highest in the state of Virginia. And we would like to lower that. But until we get an industrial base, we can't do that. You can't expect us not to ask for businesses to come in here. So it's a case of what is the best for us?

LALLEY: The county supervisors are likely to rule in favor of Disney this fall. But Disney will still have several hoops to jump through including Federal Clean Air laws. The Washington area routinely fails to meet air quality standards under the Clean Air Act, and critics say the additional traffic Disney's America would attract will only make that worse. There are also issues of water supply and wastewater treatment. But Disney appears confident that any environmental issues can be worked out. Disney spokeswoman Mary Ann Reynolds adds that Disney is the best option for development in this part of Virginia.

REYNOLDS: Let's don't kid ourselves. Growth is coming to Western Prince William County, whether it's Disney growth or subdivision growth. We believe Disney's America can be a model in the Washington region for how orderly growth and clean air can happen together.

(Little Bull Run waters flowing)

LALLEY: More than 100 years ago, Little Bull Run was said to run red with the blood of fallen soldiers during 2 great Civil War battles. Now, it could again be the site of a battle that decides the fate of this region. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lalley in Haymarket, Virginia.



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