WILL a Walt Disney Company theme park in the heart of historic Virginia ruin the very history the park would seek to celebrate?
That question has reached the halls of the United States Senate. Last week, Disney took a beating as 15 House members (conspicuously, none from Virginia) sought support for a nonbinding, anti-theme park resolution, and protesters picketed Disney chairman Michael Eisner's attendance at a movie premiere here.
But this week, it was Disney's turn as most senators on a subcommittee on public lands, national parks, and forests stressed that the county, regional, and state governments would rule on Disney's plan - not Capitol Hill. As in the Civil War, the question of states' rights has raised its head.
``Regardless of my own personal views about this project, the states' rights issue is overriding,'' said Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, who owns a farm in a county adjacent to Disney's 3,006-acre site.
So far, at least, the local arbiters of Disney's request have rolled out the welcome mat.
But because of environmental regulations and the proximity of national historic sites to the proposed park - Manassas National Battlefield Park is four miles away - federal agencies must sign off on some aspects of the Disney plan. Critics say the federal oversight is their greatest hope for defeating the $650 million project.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is preparing an environmental-impact statement on the road upgrades needed for the additional traffic Disney would bring. The Federal Highway Administration must approve that report, due out in 18 months. In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency must ensure that air quality will meet federal guidelines.
Disney is confident it can pass these tests, plus dozens of other local reviews its plan must pass before the company breaks ground in Haymarket, Va. Mark Pacala, general manager of Disney's America, as the project is called, said Tuesday that Disney ``will go the extra mile to respond to community concerns, to minimize the impact on our new neighbors, and to avoid any impact on the Manassas National Battlefield Park.''
Mr. Pacala outlined height limitations for structures on the property as well as a plan to set aside 40 percent of the site for woodlands, wetlands, streams, landscape buffers, and golf courses. Disney also promised a ``comprehensive environmental program'' to protect air, land, and water.
One of the project's chief critics - the Piedmont Environmental Council, a private citizens' group - maintains that Disney's latest rezoning application gives the company freedom to do whatever it wants with its land. Disney denies this charge.
IN a way, Disney is a victim of its own success. Its parks in California and Florida have been huge tourist magnets and have produced choking urban sprawl.
While Disney acknowledges that it cannot control development beyond its property, the company has promised to offer the services of top urban planners to help the local authorities cope with growth. Disney officials also stress that the Virginia park would be one-tenth the size of Disney World in Orlando, and that Disney's America would be designed as a one-day visit, rather than a three-to-four-day trip.
Some historians are skeptical. ``What they plan is a new city centered at Haymarket, a huge real-estate venture with an `historic' amusement park surrounded by office buildings, housing developments, hotels, motels, restaurants, and enough paved-over parking spaced to accommodate tens of thousands of automobiles,'' David McCullough, a leader of a group of 140 historians opposed to Disney's choice of site, told the subcommittee.
On the surface, the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County, which must approve Disney's plan, shares the historians' concern. At the hearing, the board's chairwoman, Kathleen Seefeldt, identified strip developments and protecting historic sites as the ``two real issues'' associated with the Disney plan.
But at root, opponents and advocates are poles apart. Long before Disney appeared on the scene, the county had designated the land for development, so it seems that building on this rural landscape is inevitable.