Disney Theme Park Sparks New Civil War in Virginia
Fear of strip-malls, desire for new jobs divides residents of a historic rural area
WASHINGTON — ABOUT 130 years ago, Yankee troops marched across the farm that still belongs to the family of Mary Margaret Haynes.
Soon it could be tourists doing the marching, up to the door of a McDonald's, a hotel, or whatever winds up being built on Oak Shade Farm.
The 113-acre cattle farm abuts the 3,006-acre site that the Walt Disney Company is buying for a theme park and other commercial and residential development.
If the Disney plan proceeds, it will be only a matter of time before someone makes the Hayneses an offer they can't refuse for their prime real estate.
Mrs. Haynes couldn't be more pleased - but not, she insists, because of the money she can make from selling her farm.
``This end of Prince William County needs something,'' Haynes says, a Confederate flag flapping outside her window. ``For me to go to the grocery store, I've got to go all the way to Manassas [eight miles away].''
But for every Mary Margaret Haynes, there's a Karen Walton, owner of Kris and Karen's Sub Shop located right at the main intersection of ``downtown'' Haymarket, a tiny town of 375 people some 35 miles west of Washington.
Ask Mrs. Walton about Disney and a sarcastic smile curls at the corners of her mouth.
``At first I thought Disney might be a good idea for the area,'' she says. ``Then I got to thinking about all the factors - the environment, taxes, police, fire, schools.... It's not Disney I oppose so much, it's the fact that people have so little control over the junk that'll go up around it. T-shirt shops, McDonald's, junk food.''
Mrs. Haynes and Mrs. Walton epitomize the deep schism that has divided Haymarket and surrounding towns since the Disney Company announced last November that it planned to build a theme park celebrating American history here.
Just about everybody in the area, it seems, has a strong opinion. The debate has divided workplaces, friends, families, even marriages.
``It's no coincidence my husband's been living in the basement since November,'' Walton says. Her husband does asphalt paving for a living, and he expects Disney to be good for business.
The story of Disney's America, as the project is called, is vast and could already fill a book. When it was first announced, reaction was overwhelmingly favorable. Disney was promising that the $650 million project would produce 12,000 jobs and bring $1.86 billion in revenue to the state over 30 years.
Two opinion polls conducted in January, one commissioned by Disney, the other not, found that more than two-thirds of Virginians favored the project.
But before long, the list of opposition groups totaled 65 - ranging from the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to local groups like the Save the Battlefield Coalition, which six years ago defeated a proposal to build a shopping center on the edge of nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park.
The National Trust has put northern Virginia at the top of its list of endangered areas in the country.
The real issue is the development that would spring up around Disney, development that Disney cannot control. Environmentalists worry about the impact on the region's air and water. Northern Virginians fret over traffic.
Historians worry that the bucolic feeling of an area rich with history would be destroyed and that the theme park will drain visitors away from the region's actual historic sights. They're also skeptical about how Disney will portray history.
Disney has promised environmentally sound practices, a cap on building as soon as traffic limits have been reached, and help to the region in planning growth wisely. The company also projects that the park will enhance interest in real historic sites.
As for what Disney will actually put in its park, company officials are close-mouthed after critics slammed original ideas.
Critics also argue that Disney will offer mainly low-paying jobs that will not attract local residents who are already making decent salaries closer to Washington, D.C. but have to commute long distances.
They also argue that the Disney project will bring new residents to the area, further burdening local services and the environment.
Disney does not project how many people, if any, will move to the area just to work for them and will not break down the salary ranges of the jobs the company will offer.
Back in Haymarket, there are only hints of the battle that has attracted international interest. The Century Stair Company sports a ``We [heart] Mickey'' banner. In a field sit a huge pair of mouse ears with ``NO'' emblazoned on them.
The only distinguishing feature of the Disney site itself are freshly posted ``No Trespassing'' signs, which warn that the property is guarded by armed security.
At Century Stair, planning director Bob Snitzer echoes Disney's arguments: ``This area is going to be developed regardless. Disney will be a better employer than some smokestack industry.''
Indeed, most members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors seem favorably disposed toward Disney, which says the project fits into the county's comprehensive plan for development.
Board chairwoman Kathleen Seefeldt says the board is still studying Disney's request for rezoning. But board member Bobby McManus, who represents the district that includes Haymarket, charges that her colleagues are not asking the tough questions that need to be asked of a corporate giant like Disney.
Last December, the board formed a citizens' task force to address the issue of strip developments. But critics like Ms. McManus and another local resident, Linda Budreika, are skeptical that it can achieve anything. ``The task force as a body has no legal rights,'' Mrs. Budreika says. ``Besides, it was all a set-up. The [board of] supervisors packed it with pro-Disney people.''
Rather than working through local politicics, Budreika prefers to exercise her freedom of speech by showing journalists the Disney site and participating in events such as a recent protest against Disney chairman Michael Eisner at a Washington movie theater.
``I don't intend to stop growth,'' says Budreika, whose large family moved here from suburban Washington for the lower housing prices and open space. ``We do need a shopping center and grocery store. But we don't need an edge city.... This is about traffic and protecting the ozone. It's really the future of our children.''
Budreika hopes all the negative publicity will scare off Disney, which values its squeaky-clean image and has rarely faced such a tough public-relations battle.
But Disney, and Mr. Eisner, are digging in their heels. They say that, after a two-year search, they've found the perfect location; company officials will not discuss the merits of other possible sites.
Disney knew about the groups that had defeated past development efforts in the region, including a theme park the Marriott Corporation wanted to build, says Mark Pacala, general manager of Disney's America.
But ``we did not anticipate the fervor with which they are going after it [or] their ability, with their deep pockets, if you will, to reach out to a lot of different opinion leaders,'' Mr. Pacala says. ``All we are asking for is a level playing field.''
Pro-Disney forces have particular rancor for a group called the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), a 22-year-old organization that says it seeks to preserve the rural character of Virginia's Piedmont region. The Disney project is located in the region, home to some wealthy landowners.
Disney has charged the PEC with funding other anti-Disney groups, such as Protect Historic America, a historians' group. PEC denies it is funding other groups, but says some of its contributors may be doing so.
Charges of elitism by Disney proponents strike some observers as a bit ironic. Disney, after all, has hired one of Washington's top lobbyists, Jody Powell, to promote the project. And if anyone has deep pockets, it's Disney.