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DISNEY? NIMBY! : Some Virginans Don’t Want U.S. History Park in Their Back Yards

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid the sanctuary of the sparsely settled northern Virginia countryside 40 miles west of Washington, Walt Disney Co. has come to build an entertainment field of dreams.

In what could become an important test of Disney’s legendary business acumen--not to mention its recently established Washington lobbying office--the entertainment giant is waging a high-stakes battle to transform part of rural Haymarket into a multimillion-dollar, 1,200-acre historical theme park called Disney’s America.

The venture comes as the Burbank-based company faces mounting financial woes at its Euro Disney theme park near Paris and doubts about its commitment to the planned $3-billion Disneyland Resort expansion in Anaheim.

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As development fights go, the battle in Haymarket could be epic. While Hollywood is no stranger to the Washington area, Disney may find that Virginia is a world apart.

In this state--birthplace of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, home to historic Jamestown and Williamsburg and such landmarks as the Manassas Civil War battlefield national park near here--Disney not only must face environmentalists and traffic foes, but also protectors of Virginia’s storied roots.

What’s more, unlike Euro Disney or Florida’s Walt Disney World, Disney’s America would be built in the back yard of the national news media, with the prospect that every twist and turn of the project would receive national and even international attention.

As in France--and Anaheim and Long Beach, where Disney has also talked recently about developing a huge project--residents of this affluent northern Virginia outpost have given Disney a mixed reception.

At least one Disney support group has sprung up, and several Virginia politicians--including newly elected Republican Gov. George F. Allen--have publicly embraced the park as a welcome economic boost.

But horse breeders, environmentalists and owners of big country estates off the remote gravel and dirt roads that bisect western Prince William County are bracing for a fight to preserve their rural lifestyle.

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“Many of us feel completely outraged,” said Jim Price, head of the Prince William County anti-Disney group Protect. “We moved out here because we wanted a rural environment. The biggest insult is that the politicians are going to force us and the whole state of Virginia to pay for this. We are getting steamrolled by a development that will change this area forever.”

The park represents a change for Disney as well.

In contrast to the company’s collection of fantasy- and animation-dominated theme parks, Disney’s America would pay homage to American history and culture. The park would have amusement rides, high-tech interactive and “virtual reality” re-enactments of U.S. historical events--such as Civil War combat--as well as 1,300 hotel rooms and a 27-hole golf course.

In addition, Disney has asked for permission to eventually build 2,500 homes and 2 million square feet of office and retail space on the remaining 1,400 acres it has purchased or optioned in the county.

“Growth . . . is going to happen regardless of Disney,” Tom Lewis, senior vice president of Disney Development Co., said at a recent news conference, where he downplayed the traffic the park would generate. “We believe we can be an important part of the solution to the transportation problem. We are not the problem.”

Disney is gaining more experience than it might like in beating back opposition to its projects. The company has run afoul of local factions virtually everywhere it has gone.

In Southern California, Disney killed its proposed theme park at the Queen Mary in Long Beach when opposition cropped up from traffic-wary residents and environmentalists. A small but vocal group of Anaheim homeowners has been decrying the noise, dust and traffic impacts of the proposed $3-billion Disneyland Resort project.

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Disney has even caught flak in Florida. Environmentalists picketed the company’s annual meeting last year, wearing turtle costumes to protest further development in the habitat of the endangered gopher tortoise.

In that case, Disney responded by creating a wilderness refuge and funding a study of tortoise respiratory tract disease. Elsewhere, the company has countered opponents with pledges that it would neither damage the environment nor create traffic snarls.

And Disney is quick to cite the taxes and jobs that would flow from its projects. About 2,000 workers would be employed during construction of Disney’s America, and another 2,700 permanent positions would be created when it opened, now scheduled for sometime in 1998.

“We are going to do what it takes to be a good neighbor in the county,” said Mark Pacala, general manager for Disney’s America. “It’s in our interest to manage growth intelligently.”

He said the park’s 2,700 workers would not add to congestion because most of them would come from the immediate area.

Disney pays its theme park workers an average of $5.65 an hour--33% above minimum wage, Pacala said. But the appetite for that kind of salary may be slim in a county that boasts an unemployment rate of 3.5%--about half that of the rest of the nation--and a median household income last year of $49,370, the 19th-highest in the United States.

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What’s more, Prince William County residents have a history of resisting growth.

Five years ago, for example, residents enlisted support from as far away as Europe to defeat a developer’s plans to build a regional shopping mall that would have created service jobs with pay comparable to what Disney would offer. Last fall, some residents cheered when Europe’s Lego Group chose Carlsbad, Calif., over Prince William for its first American theme park. And some environmental and community groups in the area have begun organizing against a horse racing track and a large amphitheater proposed for the county.

“Each major development now is touching a nerve in the public, and rightly so,” said James Waggener, chairman of the Prince William Natural Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental group of about 60 residents that has not taken a position on Disney’s proposed park.

“We don’t want to stand in the way of reasonable economic progress,” Waggener said. “But people are beginning to look up and see that they are losing the green areas and open spaces that are important to their quality of life.”

Notwithstanding the talk, countywide support for Disney is difficult to gauge. Although several small and medium-sized groups have loudly protested Disney’s plans, several others--including the 3,000-member Coalition of Gainesville District Residents, one of the area’s biggest citizen organizations--remain neutral.

Those in favor of Disney’s park--such as the Welcome Disney Committee, a 30-member group dominated by local business executives--say the development is preferable to encroaching suburban sprawl. That, they say, would do little to diversify the area’s tax base and would eventually bring enough homes and automobiles to rival the pollution and traffic congestion any theme park would produce.

“Disney will help provide the business needed to broaden our tax base,” said Robert H. Singletary, head of the Welcome Disney Committee. “Disney will offer a better way of life for the working person and businesses of all kinds.”

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Besides the generic objections to growth, Disney also faces a uniquely Virginian concern that the company may trifle with the state’s historical roots.

Disney officials have said the park will feature exhibits making phenomena such as slavery, the Civil War and the Depression “fun and exciting for the whole family.” But its location will abut, among other landmarks, a historically black Prince William community called Thoroughfare. The area includes a pre-Civil War flour mill, a black church founded in 1865, an early segregated elementary school as well as cemeteries for slaves.

“Why do we have to have this hokey American history Disneyland, when we are living right here in the middle of real history?” asked Angus MacLean Thuermer, a retired federal employee who lives in Middleburg, Va., 10 miles from the proposed Disney park.

Disney Vice President John Dreyer dismisses concerns that Disney will sully history or overlook existing landmarks in northern Virginia.

“We will be a complement to the real history in the area,” Dreyer said. “History is told in various formats. People write books about it, make movies about it. We are simply going to present it in a park. The sum total of all of this creates a greater knowledge of American history.”

Since announcing its proposed park in November, Disney has moved to combat misgivings about the venture by waging an aggressive, behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign.

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Robert G. Marshall, a Republican state legislator who represents part of the Haymarket area, said he recently received a phone call from Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner inviting him to a screening of “Sister Act 2,” the Disney film comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg. Marshall, who said he is concerned about the environmental impact of Disney’s proposed park and its potential cost to taxpayers, said he declined Eisner’s invitation.

Disney also has courted area businesses.

The Arlington, Va., consulting firm Sheridan Group, for example, was one of scores of northern Virginia companies invited last month to meet with general manager Pacala and Peter S. Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development, to discuss the proposed park.

“We were very surprised to receive the letter; we’re not located anywhere near Prince William County,” said Gretchen Chell, director of operations at Sheridan Group, which is located about 30 miles from Haymarket. “It just goes to show you how orchestrated their campaign is.”

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Pacala said his staff is holding a dozen meetings a week with business and community groups in northern Virginia. He also said Disney’s Washington office--headed by Richard M. Bates, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee--has been enlisted in the lobbying effort.

“We have used him to make introductions to legislators on Capitol Hill,” said Pacala--among them Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Sens. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.).

Disney’s efforts already are paying some dividends.

Prince William County supervisors recently changed a zoning law to save Disney $400,000 of the customary $600,000 fee the county charges for a major rezoning application.

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“Those people just rolled over for Disney,” said Bobby McManus, the sole supervisor to vote against the fee reduction. The fee cut wasn’t underhanded, she said; rather, the supervisor said she believes her colleagues simply were bowled over by Disney’s charm and the promise of economic prosperity for the county.

“They don’t care anything about the real cost of all of this to taxpayers,” McManus groused.

A few lawmakers, such as Charles J. Colgan, a Republican state legislator who represents the Haymarket area, say they believe the county should “spend some money to bring Disney here,” granting the entertainment company tax and fee breaks. Gov. Allen shares that view.

“I think the press generally gives more attention to those that oppose things,” Colgan added. “But this development will provide hundreds of young people with summer jobs and establish a broad new tax base for the county.”

Even some Haymarket landowners whose taxes stand to skyrocket if the Disney development boosts property values say they welcome the park--although detractors say such owners also can be expected to cash in, selling their land to Disney or other deep-pocket developers that the park might attract.

“I’ve been straining to come up with something negative about this development and have been unable to come up with anything,” said Steve Merkli, a longtime Haymarket resident whose home overlooks the proposed park. “I’m kind of in favor of advancement. I’m not a person who thinks we should remain in the 1800s.”

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The debate over the park has intensified in recent days as Disney has released more details of its development plans.

“More and more people are becoming concerned,” said Ellen Penar, spokeswoman for the 3,000-member Gainesville coalition. “My phone has been ringing off the hook” since Disney submitted its rezoning application Jan. 5, she said.

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All agree that the next few weeks will be crucial ones for Disney.

Disney’s development proposal now must run the gauntlet of about 18 different local, state and federal departments and agencies, including an environmental impact review, a traffic study and even an analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We are going to spend the next few weeks convincing the county citizens and all of the elected officials that this is a win-win-win partnership for us, the county and the state,” Pacala said.

“We are prepared to invest, today, over $650 million,” the Disney executive explained. “That’s how much we believe in our project. And when we get our story out in the next few months, I think folks will be convinced that the county and the people will see the tremendous benefit for their community.”

Times staff writer Chris Woodyard in Orange County contributed to this story.

Remaking History

The Walt Disney Co.’s plans to build an American History theme park in the midst of heritage-rich northern Virginia have drawn a mixed response from prospective neighbors. Park site is located in Haymarket, Va.

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