Foes hail victory for preservation

September 30, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In the end, the anti-Disney crusaders knew there was only one way to win a battle against The Mouse: damage its squeaky-clean image.

This week, to the astonishment of the historians, preservationists and environmentalists who launched the fight, the Walt Disney Co. found its good name so sullied, its plans so stymied, that its intention to place an American history theme park in the rich green rolling hills of Northern Virginia no longer made good business sense.

And the opponents were heralding their victory as a turning point for historic preservation nationwide.

"This experience can be seen as a landmark experience in the history of historic preservation," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"This is perhaps the most visible issue in recent years. It brought together preservationists and historians for the first time, in addition to environmentalists and others. I think we have raised the consciousness level of many Americans as to how important these historic resources are."

Since November, when the Disney Co. announced plans to build "Disney's America" five miles from the Manassas battlefield in Haymarket, Va., opponents of the park have launched an extraordinary campaign to derail the project. Their main strategy was to portray the proposed billion-dollar purveyor of fun and fantasy as a greedy growth monster insensitive to America's rich and fragile heritage.

"The easy metaphor is the 'Lion King' is not invincible," said Rick Foglesong, a professor at Rollins College in Florida and an expert on Disney. "But the truth is, Disney lives and dies by its public image."

The well-organized, well-heeled and well-spoken opposition -- from noted filmmakers to Chesapeake Bay protectors to members of Congress -- turned what might have been merely a local zoning battle into an American cause celebre set in the nation's capital.

They not only threatened to erode Disney's reputation across the country but also forced the company to face legal and regulatory challenges that could have tied up the project for years.

"There were only two ways to stop Disney," said Howard Coffin, a Civil War historian and aide to Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican. "One was giving them a public-relations black eye, and the other was to make clear that, sooner or later, Congress was going to get into this thing."

Local environmental groups, such as the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Sierra Club, raised fears of traffic, congestion and air and water pollution that resonated with Virginians, federal agencies and the Interior Department.

But "Protect Historic America," a group of historians led by David McCullough and James McPherson, appealed to influential lawmakers and inspired nationwide opposition to the site. They took out full newspaper ads, appeared on national TV, staged a celebrity-studded Civil War event at Ford's Theater this month and, in the end, attracted the support of "hundreds of thousands" of people across the country, said Mr. Moe, the national trust president.

In addition, several local historic preservation groups began boycotts of Disney products this month.

"It struck a chord with people everywhere who care about preserving the best of our past," Mr. Moe said yesterday. He said he had stayed in constant contact with Disney officials through the nearly year-long controversy and, in fact, received a call from Disney Chairman Michael Eisner on Wednesday night with the news.

On Capitol Hill, House members introduced a resolution this summer denouncing the placement of the theme park. And two weeks ago, Senator Jeffords turned up the heat by writing a letter to Mr. Eisner, threatening congressional intervention and saying: "Americans everywhere seem to be becoming deeply concerned about Disney and its impact on the Civil War landscape."

In a telephone interview yesterday, Dana Nottingham, the new president of Disney's America, acknowledged that preserving the corporate image was one factor in the company's decision.

"We are a global company," Mr. Nottingham said. "We are a family entertainment company. For those reasons, we are concerned about our image."

But he said it was also becoming clear that potential legal challenges, public hearings and federal reviews would delay, and make uncertain, the project to the point that the company was "uncomfortable" shelling out $650 million.

"It was a business judgment," Mr. Nottingham said. "There was a collection of potential delays."

Indeed, although the company had recently won the approval of the Prince William County planning board and regional transportation officials who authorized $130 million for new roads, it was hitting other snags.

Lawsuits had been either filed or threatened by the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Sierra Club, the historians' group and local preservation groups. The U.S. Transportation Department announced in late summer that the project would have to be subject to an environmental impact review that could take 18 months or more. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month called for public hearings along with the environmental study.

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