The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Chasing out the Mouse


Fending off the Disney's America project 10 years ago was a victory -- but only a temporary one -- against the relentless spread of dysfunctional human settlement patterns. 


It was ten years ago this month that The Walt Disney Company pulled the plug on Disney's America. This anniversary provides the opportunity to evaluate the impacts of both the prospect of “The Mouse” coming to Haymarket, Va., and what has happened to the Piedmont Countryside since Disney abandoned its plans.


Chasing off the Mouse constituted a major victory for the National Capital Subregion and for the Piedmont Countryside. A broad cross-section of individuals and organizations convinced The Walt Disney Company that locating a theme park, timeshare apartments, hotels, shopping, housing and associated activities on about 3,000 acres near Haymarket, at the gateway to the Piedmont, was a bad idea. 


The Disney fight was a milestone because the magnitude of the project, along with its clearly definable location, made it easy for citizens to visualize how they would be impacted. It was graphically clear how a large injection of urban activity in the Countryside would change economic, transportation, safety, air quality, water quality and other parameters in the region.


The veterans of that battle are justly proud of their victory. Their struggle preserved, at least for a while, irreplaceable economic, historic and environmental resources on the periphery of the National Capital Subregion. Virginia citizens held back, for a time, the forces of regional entropy and dysfunctional human settlement patterns.


But how meaningful was the victory in the long run? After 10 years, we can reach an informed judgment. To appraise the significance of the Disney defeat, it is necessary to address two questions:

  • What happened due to Disney’s plans to come to Haymarket and their abandonment of these plans?

  • What has happened to the resources that were placed in jeopardy by the Disney development?



The Disney fight generated detailed research on the impact of Disney's America and related development in the western part of Prince William County, and the broader impact on the Countryside in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.[1] This section explores what happened as a direct result of Disney’s activities over the past 10 years.


The "What If" Questions


It is impossible to know exactly how the Virginia portion of the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region would look today if the land acquisition staff from Disney’s Timeshare Group had never stumbled on a fire sale of surplus land near Haymarket. However, we can say with confidence that the flood of media coverage and publicity that “Disney is coming” created a lasting impact. 


The publicity touched off a rash of speculative land purchases from the day of Disney’s announcement in November 1993. The Disney-induced fever created unfounded expectations among landowners as well as amateur and professional speculators. After Disney pulled out, much of this land was dumped at bottom-

fisher prices. As a result, more acres of land were put into play for urban development over the next decade, and more speculators lost more money, than would have been the case with the garden-variety speculation that occurs on the frontier of urban land uses. The cheap land invited developer interest, shifting the focus of urban development from where it had been, concentrated east of Gainesville. At the same time, much of the land in western Prince William, which the county had planned and zoned for intensive urban use before the Disney episode, remains vacant.


It is safe to conclude that land speculators lost a significant amount of money as a result of Disney pulling out, but that the stimulus of the proposed project subjected the area to more urban development than it would have otherwise.


It is clearer what would have happened had Disney not opted out of Disney's America. As SYNERGY/Planning, Inc. (S/PI) noted at the time, citizens need only look at Orlando/Orange County, home of Disney World, and surrounding jurisdictions in Central Florida for a preview. A vivid forewarning of ill-advised development likely to take place occurred in the late summer of 1994 when the Prince William County Board of Supervisors approved the Nissan Pavilion (then called Cellar Door) application, with the blessing of its professional staff but contrary to the recommendation of the Planning Commission.


At the time, some insiders thought that Disney realized that Prince William County and Virginia DOT were going to be no better at stopping the surrounding sucker development than Orange County, Fla. and Florida DOT had been. Some wondered if this grim prospect contributed to their pulling the plug on Disney's American soon after Cellar Door was approved.


S/PI prepared a detailed report and testified at the hearing against the rezoning of the partially developed industrial park for the promised “cultural Mecca” in the form of an entertainment venue. The July 1994 report outlining the testimony and the independent traffic study was titled "Traffic Gridlock Will Arrive in West Prince William County Through the Cellar Door". It did. 


The Cellar Door proffers provided that the entertainment venue was allowed initially to have 25,000 patrons per event and 60 events per season. However, when specific road improvements were completed, Cellar Door was permitted to increase its capacity to 30,000 patrons per event and hold 100 events per year. The proffers did not require Cellar Door to pay for any substantial transportation improvements. Over the past decade, every time the public sector scrapes together money to make an improvement in the roadways, Nissan Pavilion takes advantage of the added capacity. A special “ring of hell” has been reserved by those stuck in traffic for the advocates who helped make Nissan Pavilion happen in western Prince William County


The explosion of tacky urban development due to the Disney project would have been magnified manyfold by the existence of a huge untimed bomb: the planned and zoned land in the triangle between Manassas, the I-66/234 Business Interchange and Gainesville/

Haymarket, including the Cellar Door site. This 700 million square feet of nonresidential land uses -- more than twice the total office space of mid-town Manhattan -- was correctly identified as a highly explosive condition by Ben Forgey, architectural critic of The Washington Post. Forgey called this potential development “Disneyoppolis.” 


Before Disney came on the scene, there was no market for these nonresidential land uses. Much of the zoned land had been lying dormant for two decades. Disney would have provided the detonator for the sleeping bomb of zoned but vacant land as was demonstrated by the approval of the Nissan Pavilion (Cellar Door) application. [2] (See Backgrounder "Anatomy of a Bottleneck”.)


Development in the I-66 Corridor Since 1994


It is easier to evaluate what has actually happened since Disney pulled out. At the outset, it is important to be sure no one is misled by a few who snicker and suggest that those who fought Disney's America are really are the losers. One of their favorite lines is,  “Look what is being built on the Disney site now.” 


EXXON and others had permission to build about as many dwellings as Toll Brothers and others are currently building on the site. This is also true for many, but not all, of the other projects that have been and are being built. The uses for this land were planned and/or zoned by Prince William County before Disney ever showed up.  There have been new rezonings, some of it on land put in play by Disney-era speculation, but these projects were not caused by Disney nor did they directly result from Disney going away.


There has been extensive scatteration of urban land uses in the multi-county area served by I-66 west of VA Route 234 Business since 1994 when Disney left. The more recent land development and building construction has been driven by a market that did not exist before 1994 and is unrelated to Disney. The dysfunctional patterns and densities of land use since 1994 are the result of many factors. Among the most important market-shaping factors -– those forces creating demand and facilitating construction -– are:

  • Failure of the federal, state and municipal jurisdictions in the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region to refine and implement the regional and subregional growth strategies sketched out in the 60s. [3]

  • Within the regional plan vacuum, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties failed to cooperate in the development and implementation of strategies to accommodate the expansion of population and urban land uses in the Virginia Subregion.

  • From 1970 through 2004, there has been massive overzoning for nonresidential land in the I-66 Corridor, especially in western Prince William County.

  • In the absence of a subregional strategy, there has been a complete failure to balance land use and transportation within western Prince William County as noted in the backgrounder cited in End Note Two.

  • Large tracts of land were available at fire sale prices due to the Savings and Loan debacle in the late 80s. The exit of Disney caused additional land to be available as noted above, but Disney had been attracted to Haymarket by the fire-sale land prices in the first place.

  • Interstate 66 was widened between US Route 50 and VA Route 234 Business.

  • During the Allen and Gilmore administrations, there were politically motivated and overly optimistic “plans” for further I-66 widening and discussion of extending METRO from Vienna to Centreville.

  • A booming high-tech industry in the late '90s generated a new generation of Dot.Com millionaires who had the resources to buy McMansions but lacked the information necessary to understand the ramifications of their location decisions.

  • Citizens and their organizations failed to recognize and adjust to the accelerating regional economic, social and physical forces following Disney’s exit.

All of these factors are important. With the exception of the last one, they are beyond the scope of this survey. The quantification of recent changes is also beyond the scope of the current work. Quantification supported by maps and graphics on a limited area of the Piedmont are part of ongoing work cited by S/PI in End Note 7.


Changes in Western Prince William County


There have been significant changes in western Prince William County since 1994. A Washington Post article in November 2003, titled “Disney’s Defeat Didn’t Stop Growth –- or End Debate -- in Prince William” -- outlines many elements of change.[4] The Post story is generally sound; however, there are two aspects of the changes in western Prince William County that deserve amplification in a survey of the Disney impact.


First, the construction and controversy that would have accompanied the implementation of Disney's America would have, in all likelihood, meant that fewer households with large disposable incomes would have been attracted to western Prince William County. There would have been fewer fire sales of land. For these reasons, there may have been fewer McMansions in golf course developments or scattered in the Countryside. 


Over the past 10 years, the influx of better-off urban households has raised household income in Prince William County to the extent it currently has the third-highest median household income in the United States for counties of over 250,000 in population. Prince William has passed Fairfax Count, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., to have the second highest median household income for jurisdictions with over 250,000 in population in the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region. [5]


Second, the conservation interests that came together in the Disney fight played a key role in creating the “Rural Crescent,” an 80,000 +/- acre 10-acre lot “conservation area” in the western portion of Prince William County. As pressure to develop large urban houses has grown, the Rural Crescent has turned out to be largely a “paper moon.” As will be noted below, 10-acre lots have accelerated the consumption of nonurban land for urban land uses–specifically urban houses on large lots. These houses, in turn, have driven the market for “Big Boxes” and strip centers such as those being built in Gainesville and at the edge of Warrenton.




One large, though indirect, impact of the Disney's America battle stemmed from the failure of Disney foes to exploit the momentum of their victory. They never satisfactorily addressed the scale and pace of urban development across the Virginia Piedmont Countryside.

The victory over Disney engendered an unfounded comfort level  among active citizens and their governance representatives that the strategy they had relied upon for the past 40 years to protect the Countryside would continue to work in the future.

“If we can beat The Walt Disney Company, we can win any battle.” The venerable, and vulnerable, traditional “Countryside Strategy” has three interrelated components:

  1. Land conservation tactics

  2. Land-use compatibility

  3. Sufficiency of government structure

There are many facets to each of these components, and unintended consequences have flowed from them. The following three sections provide a brief summary to illustrate the scope of the Countryside Strategy. 


At the outset, there are several important points to make clear:  

  • The urban development pressures washing over the Virginia Countryside are not unique to the Piedmont. The identification of the shortcomings of the Countryside Strategy is based on a survey of the area between 30 and 100 miles from the centroid of the Philadelphia, the Washington-Baltimore and the Richmond New Urban Regions. [6] (See “Wild Abandonment,” September 8,  2003; “Scatteration,” September 22, 2003; and Myths That Blind Us,” October 20, 2003.

  • For 40 years many of the citizens and governments in the Piedmont worked hard to stay ahead of the pressures eroding the Countryside.  They recognized the importance of the resource they were protecting and took action that reflected the value of that patrimony. After the Disney victory, the guard relaxed, and the forces of subsidized regional expansion grew in strength.

  • To the extent that new controls on the expansion of scattered urban land uses have been implemented, they have been focused primarily on the radial band from a 20- to 35-mile radius from the centroid of the National Capital Subregion. This has left the land from a 35- to 100-mile radius vulnerable, protected only by the Countryside Strategy which has failed for reasons outlined below. For reference, Hillsboro, Round Hill, Marshall, Warrenton and Bealeton fall with the 40- to 50-mile radius.

  • The root cause of the failure of citizens to respond to the evolving reality is the absence of community-wide education to assist citizens as voters, consumers and leaders in understanding  and intelligently responding to land-use and transportation changes over the past decade. In a democracy, there is no alternative to citizen education.

As an example, note the impacts of both the 1999 and 2003 elections in Loudoun County. For many, the 1999 election confirmed that Disney's departure signaled a change in the tide, and that citizens could then relax, expecting the traditional governance structure to "do the right thing." The 2003 election documented that the earlier convictions were wrong.

Each of the elements of the 40-year-old three-legged Countryside Strategy is interlinked and mutually reinforcing. Under a more comprehensive framework that recognized the absolute necessity for Fundamental Change in both human settlement patterns and in governance structure, many of these elements would have an important role in a new Countryside Conservation and Enhancement Strategy. Without this context and in the post-Disney euphoria, these elements combined to become a Maginot Line. This line is disintegrating under the pressure for urban development which evolved over the past decade in the Virginia Piedmont. 


One must consider all three elements of the Countryside Strategy before its overall weakness is clear. In addition to these three core elements there are other tactics such as land value taxation that need to be carefully examined. These issues are explored in the current work of S/PI noted in End Note 7.


1. Land Conservation Tactics


The first element of the Countryside Strategy is the historic reliance on four tactics:


a.       Residential parcel size

b.       Conservation regulations

c.       Conservation development

d.       Conservation easements


As noted above, these tactics could be part of a comprehensive, overarching strategy if that strategy recognized the need for Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns and Fundamental Change in governance structure.


Residential parcel size


An almost universally understood image of the erosion of the Countryside is groupings of urban houses. A late 19th century poem titled “A Northern Suburb” lamenting the loss of Countryside north of London is often quoted by Countryside advocate and Loudoun County farmer Chip Planck. In the mid-'60s it was the modest Levitt/Greenbrier houses on quarter-acre lots visible from US Route 50 near West Ox Road that signaled the end of the Countryside. More recently, it is the orphaned cluster-scale groups of townhouses and now zero-lot-line houses visible from I-66 west of Gainesville.  


In the past, most have agreed that a simple way to diminish the visual impact of urban houses was to increase the lot size. Bigger lots have been seen as the easy solution for over 40 years. The initial zoning outside the settled areas in many jurisdictions in Virginia was “agricultural” with a detached dwelling on a one-acre lot as a permitted use. To prevent lotting off road frontage, subdivision regulations were adopted, and the minimum lot size was raised to two or three acres. 


In the '70s, some jurisdictions that wanted to preserve the Countryside increased the lot size to 10 or 20 acres, and a few added the concept of a “sliding scale.” With a sliding scale, the larger the mother parcel, the larger each of the new lots must be. Clarke, Rappahannock and Fauquier are considered Countryside conservation leaders because of the adoption of large lots and the sliding scale. 


Mathematics and economics have caught up with the bigger-lot tactic in the years since Disney’s exit. 


First, the math: Assume the demand is for 1,000 new houses over a decade. On 10-acre lots, this level of demand consumes 10,000 net residential acres. At the minimum sustainable density for urban land uses (10 persons per acre at the community scale), 1,000 urban houses consume a maximum of 300 gross acres. If there were four decades of 1,000 new houses per decade, the difference would be a minimum of 40,000 net acres vs. a maximum of 1,200 gross acres. It is clear that the reliance on large lots lead to from 20 to 40 times as much land being consumed per dwelling unit when there is a market for urban homes in the Countryside.


Second, the economics: It has been was assumed that if the lot were big enough, it would be so expensive that prospective owners or builders would be discouraged from buying it to build an urban house. However, as the market-shaping factors noted above expanded the urban frontier, 1,000 units in a decade moved closer to 1,000 units per year. The large-lot tactic turned from a barrier to a demonic multiplier, and the Countryside has disappeared at an accelerating rate. [7] 

In Fauquier County, the average land consumption per dwelling for the past 11 years is in excess of 6.5 acres per dwelling.  That is 20 times the land consumption rate for urban dwellings at the minimum sustainable density.

Conservation regulations


Starting with the work of Ian McHarg in Baltimore County, Md., in the '60s, the ecologically sound idea of not building on sensitive land –- primarily floodplains, steep slopes and on sites with poor soils -– gained favor. The recent replanning and rezoning of Loudoun County relies on this concept to “protect” the Countryside. While good in theory, there is an unintended consequence if the urban-land demands documented in End Note 7 are not recognized and accommodated.


Because so little land is needed for functional patterns of urban land uses (5 percent) as compared to the amount for nonurban land uses (95 percent), simple-minded applications of conservation regulations have the net effect of disaggregateing urban development. If, following the practice of McHarg, all the “development sensitive areas” are assigned a distinctive color on map overlays, then the white areas are target areas for scattered urban development. For a discussion and graphic portrayal of the minimum ratios between urban and nonurban land, note Stark Contrast in End Note 7.


Conservation Development


During the '80s, the idea emerged that the visibility of scattered urban dwellings was most objectionable. This led to the concept of gathering dwellings into dooryard-scale groupings (frequently in a wooded area) and then agglomerating the unused land as a common reserve around the units. This is known as “conservation development.” This tactic improves the visual impact by hiding urban houses “in the bushes” but leaves the economic/fiscal, environmental and, most importantly, the traffic impact of urban dwellings scattered across the Countryside unchanged. 


Scattered dooryards of urban houses are still scattered urban houses. Unless the occupants of a dwelling derive their income from extensive use of the land, a house on a one-, three-, five-, 10-, 50- or more acre lot is still an urban house. [8]


Conservation development along with lot-size restrictions and regulations on steep slopes are tactics used to protect land not under easement in the “Rural Areas” portion of the Fauquier County Comprehensive plan.


Conservation easements


Conservation easements have a number of laudable attributes. In many cases, however, the application of conservation easements is both good and bad. Conservation easements are good for the landowner who does not want to develop the land because it reduces the cost of taxes, and  they are good for the site because they preserve open land. 


From a larger perspective, though, conservation easements which do not cover an entire natural land bay -- an entire small watershed or a contiguous range of hills -- have a negative impact to the extent they attract urban development on the adjacent, unprotected  land. 


Realtors, developers, builders and land speculators are keenly aware that land and dwellings that are adjacent to land which cannot be developed is more highly prized. One does not have to read many ads for “rural lots” before finding one that describes a site as prime because it is adjacent land that is under easement.  This is, according to marketers of “rural” land, “a highly desirable location for building a dream home.”  On a subregional basis, current easement programs remove land from the market, and thus raises the value of unprotected land. This creates and incentive for landowners to sell their land resulting in subdivision for development. 


In no Piedmont jurisdiction did conservation easements cover anything remotely approaching 95 percent of the land area by the late 90s when the market made large, scattered dwellings an attractive proposition. Less than 20 percent of Fauquier County is now covered by conservation easements including easements acquired under the purchase-of-development-rights program.   


How development pressures since Disney’s retreat have interacted to diminish the Countryside will become clear following a consideration of the other two components of the Countryside Strategy.  


2. Land-Use Compatibility


The second element of the Countryside Strategy results from a misunderstanding of the potential for compatibility between urban and nonurban land uses. The core misconception is that beyond the visual impact of a dwelling, urban land uses can be compatible with nonurban uses if the urban land uses are on big lots or “hidden in the bushes.” Residential parcel size and conservation development are driven by this misconception. 


Urban land uses in scattered, outlying locations are primarily urban dwellings and facilities that provide services and recreation for urban residents. Community newspapers in the Piedmont document the urban-nonurban conflict across property lines in story after story. Larger lots do not eliminate conflicts between urban homes and farms, nurseries, stables, vineyards and their accessory uses. 


Conflicts across property lines are only part of the problem. Almost everyone agrees that “strip development” which is the iconic image of  the VA Route 234 Business Corridor north of Manassas and of Gainesville/Haymarket is unattractive and dysfunctional. 

What most do not grasp is that scattered units, dooryards and clusters of urban housing make strip development inevitable.

The strip developments expanding outside Warrenton, Culpeper, Orange, Charlottesville and every other urban areas in the Piedmont Countryside are the inevitable result of scattered urban dwellings. These scattered urban residents generate the need for 15 to 20 automobile trips a day per dwelling. The national “average” is 10 trips per dwelling. [7] 


Land-use compatibility and the need to shift trips from private vehicles (especially, single-occupant vehicles) to shared vehicles, bicycles and pedestrian trips dictate the need for a Clear Edge between the Urbanside and the Countryside.  

The failure to assign the full cost of location-dependent services is a fundamental cause of scattered urban land uses.

3. Governance Structure


While functional human settlement patterns are needed to protect the Countryside, so is a governance structure that supports the organic components of human settlement patterns. (For an introduction to Fundamental Change see “The Shape of Richmond’s Future,” February 16, 2004.)


Concerned citizens gained false assurance from the Disney victory. They believed that they would recognize future threats to the Countryside and then could organize to stop them by energizing their well-meaning governance practitioners. It should have been obvious that this would not work, but it was not at the time, and, in 2004, it appears that it still is not.   


Disney did not leave because of government action. There was strong support from the governor and no formal opposition from the executive or legislative branch of state government, from Prince William County or from the Town of Haymarket. In fact, there was adulation and support from the vast majority of the governance practitioners in all these venues. Disney went away because it concluded that pursuing the project would have been a bad business decision -- despite receiving the government subsidies they demanded and an open-armed welcome at both state and municipal levels of the government.


In the last four decades, it has become obvious that significant nonurban resources, when faced with urban pressures, cannot be protected or enhanced by municipal and traditional state government actions alone. In fact, traditional municipal and state actions are one of the primary causes of dysfunctional human settlement patterns. The protection of nonurban resources such as Adirondack Mountains (New York), the Pine Lands (New Jersey) and Lake Tahoe (California and Nevada) has been addressed by the creation of new levels and agencies of governance that put control at the level of impact. 


The root of the problem is that the late 18th century three-level governance structure is not capable of meeting the contemporary challenges of creating and maintaining functional settlement patterns in the Urbanside or providing protection and enhancement for the Countryside. These issues are explored in the sources cited in End Notes 6 & 7.


The problems with an unresponsive governance structure are basic and pervasive. For 20 years, S/PI has argued that the problems facing the Piedmont Countryside are centered on development practices and regulations inside and adjacent to the Capital Beltway (Radius=10 miles +/-). 


In spite of this reality, there has been no shift of responsibility and power over large-scale/subregional and regional impact issues away from the bloated mega municipalities (large counties) and up to the level of impact (subregional and regional). There has also been no devolution of their power down to the neighborhood, village and community levels on issues which have a smaller-scale impact.


In addition to the new and modified governance actions needed to address the problems noted above under Land Conservation Tactics and Land-Use Compatibility, other fundamental flaws include:

  • It is not possible to have functional human settlement patterns when land-use decisions are made at municipal level and transportation decisions are made at the state level.

  • There is an overwhelming impact on the municipal (county and town) tax structure when urban houses with children to educate are the primary new land uses being developed in the jurisdiction.

The need for land-use/transportation balance should by now be clear. The second point requires amplification to make the futility of current actions apparent. 


Since owners of expensive houses on big lots pay higher taxes, they appear to be attractive for municipalities to encourage. The taxes on these units may generate enough revenue to cover the current, direct school costs -– especially as the very well-to-do often send their children to private schools. However, the taxes on expensive houses do not cover the cost of municipal services when the costs of externalities are calculated.  The cumulative environmental costs of septic tanks, lowering of the ground water table and the consumption of farm-to-market road capacity are not added to the tax bill.


More importantly, there is no accounting or tax adjustment for the location-variable costs of the 40 +/- services that make contemporary urban life possible and enjoyable. When builders or homeowners make a location decision that requires a subsidy from taxpayers, it is not reflected in their annual tax bills at the municipal, state or federal levels. When there is a budget shortfall as a result, all citizens must make up the difference, regardless of whether their pattern and density of land use contributes to the cost.


Increased budgets to pay for urban services result in municipalities taking actions to attract “tax base” development to pay for the services that residents demand. Economic development programs become a buffalo hunt for jobs. Often the new jobs turn out not to match their existing employables, especially in counties with low unemployment rates. This leads to importing workers to fill the jobs. Frequently these new workers have children to educate and other service needs, but they cannot afford houses that are expensive enough to even pay school costs for their children. All but the most fortunate are forced to commute long distances or compete for the affordable and accessible housing needed to support lower-income workers already in the community.  

The goal must be Balanced Communities rather than big houses or overzoning for “tax base” land uses.



There are solutions to the shortcomings of the three-legged Countryside Strategy. They requires the evolution of Balanced Communities and the demarcation of a Clear Edge between the Urbanside and the Countryside at all scales. Achieving these aims requires new tools and programs at the subregional, regional and state levels and thus the need for not just Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns but also Fundamental Change in governance structure.

The solution is not a command and control regime of expanded municipal, state or federal control or an abrogation of personal or property rights.  If the playing field were leveled, a free and well-informed market would provide the incentive to create Balanced Communities and functional human settlement patterns.

For urban houses and other urban land uses in the Countryside, a level playing field will require urban service users to pay the full costs for externalities and the costs for services. The owners of urban homes that drive up the costs of private and public services because of their location choices will have to pay these increased costs. Then the taxes of the residents who have chosen to live in locations which are serviced more cheaply can be decreased accordingly. 


In order to achieve Balanced Communities:  

  • Citizen education must be provided to increase the understanding of the fundamental ratios of nonurban land to urban land.

  • All urban land uses must be configured to become part of Balanced Communities.

  • Balanced Communities -- both those inside the Clear Edge around the core of New Urban Regions and the Disaggregated but Balanced Communities that are in the Countryside -- must have Clear Edges.

How Balanced Communities can be created is outlined in Handbook: Three-Step Process to Create Balanced Communities in Sustainable New Urban Regions. [9]


Not everyone believed the three-legged Countryside Strategy would continue to work just as it had before Disney. [10]  Enough did, however, that work was curtailed on the programs needed to create support for Fundamental Change. The best example of the erosion of support for education came after the 1999 Loudoun election when the overwhelming view was

that it was time to put the responsibility for Fundamental Change in the hands of the traditional government structure.

The Countryside will not be preserved and enhanced by a fight over a power plant here or a power line there; a road widening here and a bypass there; a subdivision here and a pseudo “town center” there; a big box here and multi big boxes there.



When Disney abandoned the idea of Disney's America, the Piedmont was spared a horrible fate. Chasing out the Mouse represented a clear victory against an explosion of urban activity that would have quickly spread destruction outward from western Prince William County across the Countryside. Disney's America would have created a laundry list of  problems starting with traffic congestion. Within a short period of time, the 40 years of work by conservation organizations, historic resource saviors and their allies to protect the Piedmont would have been undone.


How does the Countryside in 2004 compare to the decimation that would have come about as a result of Disney’s America and the uses which would have agglomerated around it? Not even close.


That said, however, what has happened in the 10 years since 1994 is not a pretty picture. The past 10 years have brought more traffic congestion, an acceleration of urban land uses in hard-to-service locations, increased costs for services, degraded levels of service, loss of open space, strip development, abandonment of roadside buildings and other eyesores. In addition, the more profound, complex problems of air quality, energy supply and distribution, water quality and supply have become worse, as have economic, safety and health concerns. Almost everyone has their individual list of  problems to contribute when discussing the condition of the Countryside in 2004.


Although the spread of dysfunction (often called “sprawl”) has come more slowly than it would have if driven by Disney and the devastation has not been as overwhelming, it has come just the same. Instead of Disney's America at the center of the wheel with its impact radiating out the spokes, it is like measles appearing in no identifiable pattern. In the worst cases, the Countryside is almost unrecognizable. Unlike a child, whose spots disappear with time, the blotches on the Countryside do not go away. The scattered urban land uses in some areas are less repulsive to the eye than the uses that would have followed Disney, but they are contributing to the same short- and long-term problems that Disney would have generated. 


The future of the Piedmont Countryside, as well as the Countrysides in other large New Urban Regions, depends on many variables and unknowns. However, no matter how much work by how many people and how many new laws are enacted, the Piedmont Countryside can never be returned to the way it was in 1994. 


Is the Countryside in a downward spiral that cannot be turned around?  It is clear that if left to the strategies of the past, the downward course will continue toward entropy. Will new strategies, new techniques, new plans, new programs, new policies and other efforts be successful in stopping the descent? Only time will tell. 


-- October 4, 2004





1. Reports By S/PI concerning the Disney's America project include:

Finding an Optimum Site for Disney's AMERICA, January 1994.

Disney's AMERICA -- The Relocation of the Region's Market and Tax Base, March 1994.


Disney's AMERICA -- The Real Impact on the Region's Mobility, March 1994.


Disney's America -- Impact on National Resources, June 1994.


Traffic Gridlock Will Arrive in West Prince William Through the Cellar Door, July 1994.

2. See backgrounder titled “The Anatomy of the Subregional Bottleneck” (2003) for a review of the land uses/transportation dysfunction in the western part of Prince William County.


3. Disney Site Selection and Regional Planning


One aspect of the Disney battle provides important insight into the issue of regional and subregional planning. In the early '60s, the national capital regions of the United States (Washington-Baltimore) and France (Paris) both undertook ambitious plans to shape the future of their respective regions. 


In the case of the United States, the plan was called “The Plan for the Year 2000" and nicknamed the “Wedges and Corridors Plan.” In the case of France, it was a plan for the orderly expansion of the Paris Region. There are great similarities in the concepts behind these two plans. The difference is in the result. That difference is made clear by the actions of The Walt Disney Company in these two regions.


In the '80s, Disney undertook a Europe-wide search for a location for a Disney World-scaled recreation and convention venue. They found and selected a site that had been set aside for a “regional recreation venue” in the '60s plan for the Paris Region. The site was adjacent to a major multi-modal shared-vehicle interchange station east of Paris. At this station, one could walk across the platform between the high-speed rail line connecting the north of France with the south of France and the modern radial transit system (RER) serving Paris. 


The RER is a modern, high-capacity rapid transit system. It supplements, and in many locations shares stations with, the venerable Paris Metro that provides “always a station within 10 blocks” transit service in the core of the Paris Region. The RET provided the armature for the orderly expansion of Paris including eastward in the Marne Valley. The Marne Valley line’s terminal station is shared with the highspeed TGV. What is now the TGV system was only a concept when the plan for the Paris Region was drafted in the mid-60s. Now the TGV and similar systems tie together most of Western Europe’s major urban centers. 


To get to Disneyland Paris (nee Euro Disney) from Paris, one simply gets on any RER train (or on Metro or most bus lines and then transfers to the RER at any of the many shared stations) to go see The Mouse or the associated conference center. Because of the high-speed rail system, access to Disneyland Paris is almost as easy for most of the residents of the other large urban regions in France and now for visitors from across Western Europe via the regional connections to the expanding high-speed rail system.


When Disney was looking for a location for timeshare apartments near the U.S. Capital, they found no such regional plan that might help guide them. In 1994, 33 sites were identified that would better meet Disney’s needs than the Haymarket site they had selected in the National Capital Subregion. None of the 33 sites was as good for such a use as the Disney site in the Paris Region.


4. “Disney’s Defeat Didn’t Stop Growth–Or End Debate–in Prince William,” Steven Ginsberg, The Washington Post, 24 November 2003, Page A-1.


5. “Prince William Flaunts Its Prosperity,” Eric M. Weiss, The Washington Post, 17 September 2004, Page B-1.


6. Wild Abandonment” (September 8, 2003), “Scatteration” (September 22, 2003) and “The Myths that Blind Us” (October 20, 2003), Bacon's Rebellion

7. The quantities used in the last two paragraphs are based on five Natural Laws of Human Settlement Pattern documented in The Shape of the Future. (E M Risse, SYNERGY/Resources, Warrenton, VA, 2000). The application of these laws to urban expansion is profiled in Stark Contrast: Two Views of the Road Ahead. (SYNERGY/Resources, 2001) and confirmed by the field work reported in the three columns cited in End Note 6.  The impact on one specific potential Balanced Community is documented in The Shape of Warrenton-Fauquier's Future (in process by SYNERGY/Resources).

8. One of the Natural Laws of Human Settlement Pattern cited in End Note 7 is the X10. The application of this rule indicates there is some savings from agglomerating units at the dooryard scale, but this savings accounts for less than 20 percent of the negative impact of scattering dwellings across the landscape.


9.  First published in 2001 as a handbook focusing on the Virginia Piedmont, Handbook: Three-Step Process to Create Balanced Communities in Sustainable New Urban Regions will at some point be revised to apply to any New Urban Region.


10. Immediately after Disney announced its departure, professionals set about to use the leftover anti-Disney war chest to fund activities of the Post Disney Group, a joint venture of conservation organizations and funders who participated in the Disney campaign. The work of the Post Disney Group resulted in a “Strategic Stalemate” concerning the provision of new infrastructure, primarily transportation facilities. The Stalemate is now in danger of crumbling because of lack of citizen understanding and support on transportation and land-use issues. Members of the Post Disney Group also supported the education program in Loudoun County from 1996 through 1999.  



























Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.