Prince William County board approves controversial data center project


Prince William County’s board Wednesday approved guidelines for a plan to convert 2,100 acres of rural land into a data center complex, triggering the county’s largest land-use change in decades in an area that has seen the rapid growth of residential developments and tech centers.

After an often-contentious 14-hour meeting that began Tuesday evening, the county board voted 5-2 to amend the land use plan in a portion of Gainesville where two technology companies want to build a “Digital Gateway” complex on a site occupied by more than 200 homes and small farms near the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Republican supervisors Jeanine Lawson (Brentsville) and Yesli Vega (Coles) opposed the plan, which was initiated by property owners in the increasingly traffic-congested stretch of western Prince William.

“We’ve got to move forward and take that shot, and this is a shot I see we can take to get us to where we need to be,” Supervisor Victor S. Angry (D-Neabsco), who introduced the motion to approve the guidelines, said before the vote.

“This represent a change in Prince William County that can secure our future,” board chair Ann B. Wheeler (D-At Large) said.

In an atrium outside the board’s meeting hall, a crowd of about 300 people listened attentively to every speaker, sometimes cheering or jeering.

Many wore stickers or T-shirts advertising where they stood on the issue, with burly union construction workers who support the Digital Gateway plan sitting next to retirees who oppose it.

“You can’t possibly be that irresponsible,” Bill Wright — a resident of the sprawling 55-plus Heritage Hunt community near the site who has been a central figure in the opposition — told the board during a public hearing portion of the meeting that featured 262 speakers, with an additional 41 chiming in remotely.

“Should you foolishly decide to approve this disaster, despite all advice to the contrary, it will forever stain your legacy,” Wright said.

The board’s five Democrats, all of whom voted to approve the Digital Gateway plan, took pains to address the major concerns raised by the plan’s critics.

Supervisor Margaret A. Franklin (D-Woodbridge) added provisions in the motion seeking to preserve any cultural artifacts found on the site, particularly related to African American and Native American history, where the project’s developers, QTS Realty Trust and Compass Datacenters, who have entered into multimillion-dollar contracts to purchase most of the affected homes, would conduct archaeological studies.

The plan seeks to have Pageland Lane, which runs adjacent to the site, expanded from two lanes to four and to reroute traffic cutting through nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park to surrounding roads. Supervisor Kenny A. Boddye (D-Occoquan) asked the county staff to work to install roundabouts and other speed-controlling measures on the expanded roadway to keep traffic below 45 miles per hour — a response to worries that the road expansion will trigger the revival of a “bicounty parkway” plan extending from Loudoun that was previously defeated. The county staff already included language in the plan that keeps traffic from entering that road from I-66.

Boddye also sought to encourage QTS and Compass to use clean energy at the site to reduce the potential for pollution and noise, and Angry added language requiring the companies to install wet ponds, landscaping and other features aimed at reducing storm water runoff and soil erosion.

Republican opponents called the extra safeguards meaningless, arguing that the data center companies can ignore them.

“At the end of the day, it’s really fluff,” said Vega, who is running for Congress in Virginia’s 7th District. “The comp plan is merely a guide, something that advises. But it’s not legally binding.”

Supervisor Pete Candland (R-Gainesville), whose home is part of the project and represents the affected area, did not attend the meeting after recusing himself from the vote.

The often-angry tone of the meeting reflected the nearly two years of debate over the Digital Gateway proposal. The fight has led to lawsuits and recall campaigns against Wheeler and Candland, a normally outspoken critic of data center development who surprised his supporters when he and his wife agreed to sell their home as part of the proposal.

County officials estimate the plan for 27 million square feet of data centers on the site would generate at least $400 million in additional tax revenue that could go toward crowded schools and other problems in the steadily growing county of nearly 485,000 residents.

QTS Realty Trust and Compass Datacenters still need to get their projects approved in a separate rezoning process before the data centers can be built.

The site sits in what is known as the “Rural Crescent,” an 80,000-acre swath of the Occoquan watershed where development has been largely restricted to agricultural uses or one home spaced every 10 acres.

Under the Digital Gateway proposal, about 800 acres of the designated area would be set aside as parkland, trails and wildlife corridors, though QTS and Compass have told county officials they want to use some of that land for electrical infrastructure, storm-water-retention ponds and other support facilities.

The proposal also includes a provision to extend public water and sewer lines to the data centers. It adds that “efficient water usage” would be encouraged at the site, including in the form of cooling systems that use recycled water or no water at all. Noise from the data centers would also have to be kept to 60 decibels during the day and 55 decibels at night, about the volume of a normal conversation.

County officials embraced the plan as a way to take advantage of the $8.4 billion data center industry’s rapidly expanding footprint in Northern Virginia. Data centers, which require few local government services while generating massive amounts of tax revenue, are a targeted industry for several jurisdictions in the region.

Prince William is seeking to compete with if not surpass Loudoun County as the region’s chief hub for data centers. Loudoun collects about $500 million from its 25 million square feet of data centers, though the county board there has begun to further restrict where new structures can be built. Prince William collects $79 million per year in tax revenue from the 35 data centers operating in the county, covering 6 million square feet, with another 5.4 million square feet in development and more data centers in the pipeline for approval.

Last year, a Prince William County study found that an overlay district where most of its data centers are concentrated was running out of land considered to be marketable to data center developers who might prefer to build elsewhere — a finding bolstered by a separate study.

That launched an ongoing effort to expand the overlay district into other parts of the county that has run parallel to the Digital Gateway project.

Opponents to the plan mounted a fierce effort to kill both ideas, part of a history of fighting new development in the Rural Crescent that over the decades has included defeating plans for an auto racetrack, a mega mall and a Disney theme park.

Environmental groups warned against adding more impervious surface to the Occoquan watershed, where urban runoff and sewage from homes has increased the levels of salinity in the Occoquan reservoir, a prime source of fresh drinking water for the region.

Meanwhile, historical preservation groups — joined by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns — warned that installing data centers close to the site of two major Civil War battles and what are believed to be unmarked graves of formerly enslaved people would undermine Northern Virginia’s historical integrity.

Exhausted after a long night Wednesday morning, with tempers short, the supervisors bickered and argued up until the vote was cast.

Outside the meeting, Mary Ann Ghadban strolled through the crowd, waiting for her turn to speak to the board, which came at about 4:30 a.m.

She and her neighbors initiated the Digital Gateway plan out of frustration over the constant flow of cut-through traffic in the area and the rows of 12-story-high transmission lines the Dominion Energy utility installed through their property, in part to provide power to data centers in nearby Loudoun County.

The Digital Gateway plan will require more transmission lines to be installed in the area, though it’s unclear where, Dominion Energy has said.

But Ghadban, a real estate broker who owns a small farm off Pageland, said the time to save the neighborhood has passed.

“I thought I would live on my farm and die there,” she said cheerfully, less than an hour after the board voted. But the area “is not farming-friendly. This is the best plan and the biggest bang for the buck for Prince William County. It’s a win-win-win.”

Elena Schlossberg, head of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County slow-growth group, was also camped at the meeting most of the night.

She called the decision “on the wrong side of protecting the environment.”

But “the fight is not over,” Schlossberg added, suggesting more legal challenges to the plan. “No, the fight is not over.”