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Disney Called Threat to Va. Farms : Agriculture: An Americana park and resort near the U.S. capital would jeopardize the state's crops, group says.

March 24, 1994|From Staff and Wire Reports

A Walt Disney Co. theme park would threaten rural Virginia west from Washington to the Shenandoah Valley, jeopardizing 50% of the state's orchards and 15% of its farmland, a national farm conservation group said this week.

The American Farmland Trust, an 18,000-member nonprofit group that gets much of its financial support from the Rockefeller family and the Ford and Richard King Mellon foundations, urged a halt to the project unless conservation measures are taken to protect Northern Virginia's $263-million agriculture industry.

"The controversy over this project is not just a back-yard squabble; it is symptomatic of what is happening all over America," said Edward Thompson Jr., the trust's public policy director. "The land that feeds us . . . is being taken for granted and . . . paved over indiscriminately."

Disney announced plans last year for a new, Americana-themed amusement park resort in the gentle countryside outside Washington, including such things as a World War II airdrome and re-enactments of Civil War battles.

But even before the farmland trust became involved, the project was criticized by groups ranging from anti-development forces to history buffs.

Although no similar outcry has arisen, Disney's proposed Disneyland Resort project in Anaheim, centered on a new Westcot internationally themed amusement park, would eat up farmland as well.

Hotels would be built on a Disney-owned strawberry field north of the Disneyland hotel. The company had also made repeated attempts to buy another, larger strawberry field near the existing Disneyland, but the owner refuses to sell.

In Virginia, the trust estimated that there are 6,000 farms making up 1.2 million acres in 12 counties within 40 miles of the Disney site.

In 1987, the land accounted for 14% of the state's farmland, worth $2.6 billion, and $236 million in agricultural production, including 52% of its horses, 48% of its fruit, 19% of its cattle and 15% of its poultry.

"This is just one of the most flagrant examples of the threat of unplanned growth that we see all over the country," said trust President Ralph Grossi, comparing rural Virginia to California's Central Valley and South Florida's sugar cane fields, where sprawling suburbs have gobbled up thousands of acres. "Development often causes local leaders to act in too much of a hurry to get these jobs. They don't realize what they are giving up."

Mary Anne Reynolds, spokeswoman for Disney's America, rejected any freeze on the park and resort project.

"Disney and the farmland trust both want responsible growth," Reynolds said, but it is unreasonable for Prince William County to be "held hostage to decisions outside its borders."

While Reynolds said Disney would work with the trust for conservation, she noted that before Disney announced its plans, Prince William's ambitious growth plans already envisioned building on the scale of a new Rosslyn, Ballston or Tysons Corner on vacant land west of Manassas.

Grossi called on Virginia Gov. George Allen and state Agriculture Commissioner Clinton Turner to help the counties create large, new agricultural reserves, zoning easements and tax and other financial incentives for farmers to keep their land rural.

Citing Disney projections that it will employ the equivalent of 2,700 full-time workers and build 2,500 residences and 2 million square feet of offices and shops, Grossi said the project's spinoff growth "will undoubtedly change the face of Northern Virginia."

The trust cited Orange County, Fla., home of Walt Disney World, where it said that from 1969 to 1987 county population doubled while farm acreage fell by a third.

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