Prince William County officials have granted permission to rezone more than 2,000 acres in Manassas in Northern Virginia for data center use.
Officials today voted in favor of changing the comprehensive plan, known as the PW Digital Gateway, which paves the way for more than 25 million sq ft (2.3 million sqm) of data center development. The amendments provide by-right zoning for data centers on the land along Pageland Lane.
Officials voted 5-2 in favor with no abstentions after more than a year of controversy and protests over the proposals.
The meeting began at 7.30pm local time, and continued until after 9 am the next day. Local news reported more than 250 registered to speak during the marathon meeting. Some 40 people spoke remotely via Internet calls, which the meeting didn’t get to until around 5 am and didn't finish until 8 am local time.
One speaker suggested the size of the interest in the project meant discussions should have been spread over several meetings, instead of a single ‘speechathon’ that wouldn’t allow for greater discussion. He suggested county officials were ‘going through the motions’ and had already decided the outcome.
Other speakers warned of ‘empty promises’ of increased tax revenues for the county, which some said would be offset by decreased property prices and other environmental and quality-of-life impacts. The increased traffic and the potential of a new parkway road were also raised as concerns, as well as the proximity to Manassas Battlefield. A number of people requested the county do water, noise, and environmental studies before granting permission for the project.
Many said the existing data center overlay zone – itself currently undergoing a separate study ahead of potential expansion – was sufficient to lure developments and improve the county's finances.
Those in favor said the project would bring greater prosperity to the area. According to local reporter Nolan Stout, who attended the meeting, the public hearing ended with 128 opposed and 111 in support.
InsideNova reports the board had to take an eight-minute recess at 1:19 a.m. Wednesday because the audience repeatedly ignored Chair Wheeler’s warnings to follow rules of decorum.
After hearing from the public, the councilors bickered repeatedly over process and lack of collaboration on the proposals, with the Chair threatening a recess if the board couldn't calm down. The officials managed to continue without recess and included motions to change some of the requirements in the amendment around roads, historical finds, and wildlife. At one point Supervisor Lawson said the board's Democrat majority treats the Republican minority like a "battered wife".
Chair Wheeler and Supervisors Angry, Bailey, Boddye, and Frankline voted in favor, with Supervisors Lawson and Vega voting against. The supervisors could be heard over the microphones continuing to bicker after the results of the vote were announced.
“This is a bold plan and it will change the landscape of Prince William County,” Wheeler said before the vote.
PW Digital Gateway to change the geography of NoVa's data center market
Reports of a PWC Digital Gateway surfaced last year, originally as an 800-acre development later tied to QTS. However, more landowners joined and the proposal expanded to include some 2,133 acres of the county's "rural crescent" for data centers.
Compass and QTS are known to be involved in the project, looking to rezone and develop on around 800 acres each. A letter from NOVEC in a previous staff report suggests the project could total more than 1,000MW.
InsideNova reports during the meeting, Compass co-founder Chris Curtis said the area is a 'prime location for the industry' because of the existing power and fiber lines.
"The corridor is the best location in Prince William County and, quite frankly, one of the best locations I’ve seen in the world for data centers,” he said.
In a statement to DCD, Chris Curtis, SVP of Development and Acquisitions for Compass Datacenters said: "As this process moves to the next phase, Compass Datacenters is committed to being a good neighbor and working through the County’s zoning process to solicit input and feedback from stakeholders on our construction and operating plans."
A QTS company spokesperson told us: “QTS is pleased that the Prince William County Board of Supervisors recognizes the compelling economic and community benefits of the Digital Gateway project and has approved the proposal to move forward. We are eager to continue working with stakeholders and members of the community to make this project a reality and help Prince William County continue to flourish.”
If fully built out, the Gateway could more than double the county's existing data center footprint and overtake neighboring Loudoun County, with up to 27.6 million square feet of data centers developed. Individual developments would still need planning and rezoning permission; data center developments outside the county’s designated ‘Data Center Overlay Zone’ also need special permission.
A number of local residents and local officials have voiced opposition to the plan, against further developments in the rural area, worries about the potential impact the rezoning could have on the nearby Manassas National Battlefield and other local historical sites as well as the local water table and rural nature of the area.
Opponents and proponents have launched personal attacks against each other, and it has spawned recall efforts against Gainesville Supervisor Pete Candland and Board Chair Ann Wheeler as well as a federal lawsuit against Candland.
The result, though controversial, was little surprise. In September the Prince William County Planning Commission voted 4-3-1 to recommend approval of the first application. County staff had recommended the previous week that planning officials approve the proposals. More than 220 people signed up to speak at the planning commission meeting, with some 150 actually standing to speak after hours of waiting for many.
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