Virginians fear urban sprawl around planned Disney park

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The Independent Online
DISNEY'S plan to build a dollars 650m ( pounds 430m) historic theme park west of Washington is coming under attack for degrading America's past and spreading urban sprawl into the north Virginia countryside.

Shelby Foote, noted historian of the American civil war, said: 'My fear is that the Disney people will do to American history what they have already done to the animal kingdom - sentimentalise it out of all recognition.'

The impact of what Disney is proposing has been slow to sink in.

In November the company announced it was going to build Disney's America on 3,000 acres of land 35 miles west of the capital. The theme park, due to open in 1998, would be the beginning of an urban development the size of Boston.

The park would be only a small part of Washington's expansion westwards, but Disney also intends to build 1,500 hotel rooms, 2,500 homes, golf courses and a 283-acre camp site. And as a magnet attracting other developers the project would transform the economic and social geography of the region to the west of the Chesapeake Bay. It would mean a new road system and increased traffic.

Opponents of Disney point to the runaway urbanisation around its other theme parks in Anaheim, California and Orlando, Florida.

'If you've ever been to Orlando,' warns historian David McCullough, 'and drive down International Drive, it goes on for 30 miles, nothing but gas stations, fast food, T-shirt shops. It's awful. It's the ultimate highway nightmare. And that's what you'll have near the Disney site. This is the creation of a new city, a new 'edge city', sprawl at its worst.'

At first it appeared Disney would triumph over the objections of a few local landowners dismayed by threatened development. George Allen, the newly elected Republican governor of Virginia, gave the project full support. Virginia voted dollars 163m for roads and infrastructure in March. Disney promised that the theme park would not just be feel-good fantasy but would realistically portray slavery and the civil war.

But, while Disney underlined its deep respect for American history, there is no doubt that its theme park will urbanise areas which were among the most fought over of the civil war. It will be close to Manassas, the site of two battles in which 4,200 soldiers were killed in 1861 and 1862. Historians say another 14 battle sites are threatened.

Not all this is Disney's fault. The District of Colombia has a population of only 600,000. But the metropolitan area around Washington expanded during the Eighties and is now the fourth largest commercial centre in the country. 'You think traffic is bad now,' says an anti-Disney television advertisement. 'Wait until the Disney corporation builds near Manassas.'

As the scale of Disney's scheme became apparent, the federal and Virginia transport departments opened inquiries into the impact of increased traffic on the environment of the whole region. Exhaust fumes from extra cars would blow over greater Washington.

Under attack by environmentalists and historians Disney may have to stage a strategic withdrawal from the battlefields it is accused of desecrating.