In Disney's Eyes, History Is Bunk


This isn't the first time an invader has marched down the Warrenton Turnpike toward Haymarket with the idea of conquering northern Virginia. An army of 34,000 Union troops tried it in July, 1861. They crossed over a little stream called Bull Run and attacked a Confederate army which had come up from Manassas Junction to stop them.

At the critical point in the first major battle of the Civil War, Union forces charged a weakened Confederate flank on Henry House hill. But there they ran into a brigade of adamant Virginians commanded by Gen. Thomas J. Jackson.

The Virginians held the hill, the Confederates won the battle, and the Union army turned around and went back to where it came from. A little over a year later, Jackson and his men beat back another Union army on the same ground.

If the ghost of Stonewall Jackson still haunts these rolling hills, he must be looking for men with the mettle of his legendary Stonewall Brigade. Today another army has invaded the northern Virginia Piedmont, and this time the enemy is much more threatening than any Union force.

The Walt Disney Corporation plans to build what it calls an "American history theme park" on 3,000 acres outside of Haymarket. This $650 million "Disney's America" will include 2 million square feet of commercial space, 2,300 houses and 1,500 hotel rooms. Eventually, the project will grow into a mammoth commercial and residential development. Disney's own zoning application would allow another 12 million square feet of nonresidential space.

This development will put an enormous strain on the region. By Disney's own estimates, its theme park alone will add 77,000 automobile trips per day to roads already clogged with commuters. When fully developed, the entire project could generate an additional 200,000 daily trips. Add fast-food stores, motels, gas stations, paved parking lots, more houses, more fast-food stores.

What Disney's really building is another fringe city -- one which leapfrogs the ring of suburban centers around Washington to start a whole new independent mass of suburban sprawl in the middle of pristine countryside. The automobile pollution and surface water run-off problems alone have horrified the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

A project of this magnitude would challenge the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the greater Washington area's traffic and pollution-control plans no matter where it was built in the region. But Disney has chosen to plop this mega-development right smack in the middle of one of the most historic areas in America.

It's not just that the site lies only three miles west of the Manassas National Battlefield Park where 23,000 Confederate and Union soldiers gave their lives in two battles.

The whole region is historic. As the outraged National Trust for Historic Preservation points out, another 31 major Civil War battlefields lie within an hour's drive. So do 38 more historic districts and 235 historic sites, including Monticello, Montpelier and Ash Lawn, the homes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.

"It is no exaggeration to call this area the cradle of democracy," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson in condemning the Disney project. Another Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, C. Vann Woodward, put it this way:

"This part of Northern Virginia has soaked up more of the blood, sweat and tears of American history than any other area of the country. It has bred more founding fathers, inspired more soaring hopes and ideals and witnessed more triumphs and failures, victories and lost causes than any other place in the country."

Does Disney have any understanding of the sacrilege it intends to commit? Apparently not. Michael Eisner, its CEO, recently claimed that his company's land "is not in the middle of a historic area." When told that eminent historians disagreed, he made the following pronouncement: "I sat through many history classes where I read some of their stuff, and I didn't learn anything."

Apparently, today's Virginians haven't learned much about their own history either. The new Republican governor, George Allen, has made the development one of his priorities, and the Virginia legislature has appropriated $160 million for the infrastructure improvements Disney has demanded.

Why are once-proud Virginians subsidizing a corporate invader who openly intends to despoil their historic lands and exploit them for multi-million dollar profits? Jobs! Mostly low-paying service jobs in the tourist industry. But jobs. All of them bought at the cost of clogged roads, a polluted environment and a desecrated historical legacy. But jobs. Disney has beguiled Virginia with the lure of employment.

Of course economic development is important for any state and any region. But rational land-use planning is supposed to direct development away from the profligate consumption of land and toward locations which make sense in terms of transportation, congestion, pollution and compatible surroundings.

The Virginia Piedmont offers neither the setting nor the infrastructure for this project. But Virginia seems determined to let Disney go ahead anyway. The only hope to stop this abomination lies with the federal government. The Interior Department and other federal agencies still must approve certain aspects of the plans. But Disney says it's going to push ahead no matter what the government does. It may not even wait until federal agencies have completed the environmental-impact assessments.

Congressman Mike Andrews, D. Tex., has introduced Resolution which opposes the Disney project. So far, none of our Maryland incumbents has supported it. Perhaps they feel this is a local matter for Virginians to decide. Some people say it's their state, their land, and they ought to be able to do anything they want with it. For the rest of America, it's none of our business.

They're wrong. The history of the Virginia Piedmont belongs to all of us. The Civil War is our country's defining national experience. The battlefields on which it was fought are among our holiest sites. Many of them are now threatened by growth and greed. But the area around Bull Run and Manassas still looks much as it did when Union and Confederate soldiers fought and died on it. We have an obligation to them and to ourselves to preserve it for future generations.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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