The Prince William Planning Commission recommended the “denial” of three Prince William Digital Gateway applications, Thursday morning, based upon the planning staff’s recommendation. The 5:3 vote followed a 23-hour-long meeting that included an all-night citizens' time.
The recommendation was a big win for data center developers QTS and Compass, although that sounds counterintuitive. It allows their applications to progress to the board of county supervisors without delay. In that sense, it is preferable to a deferral, which Republicans sought.
It is also a win in that the recommendation holds little weight since the board of supervisors will vote on a different, revised application. The commissioners based their “denial” only on the Aug. 24 submission because staff did not have enough time to fully review the fifth version, submitted on Nov. 1.
“The applicant had a detailed response, unfortunately, we could not include that in what we were able to consider,” said Chair Cynthia Ned-Moses. “I think that none of us would disagree with what the applicant had put forward… We have to work with what’s here.”
Commissioner Gwendolyn Brown agreed, explaining their role is to decide if the development is consistent with what is in their comprehensive plan. “[The new applications] really have to be entertained and reviewed,” she said prior to voting.
While staff could not speak in favor of the application as is, QTS and Compass presented the new proffers before the commission. The result was two different competing visions for the project.
Staff recommended denial of the August applications because of serious shortcomings such as building height, floor area, view shed effects, lack of preservation, and too much leeway to make changes. However, the new application, “Application Five,” addresses what staff considered the shortcomings by the addition of generous new proffers, rectifying those issues.
Applications "Five" will go before the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Dec. 12.
Why this is good news for developers
Data center developers QTS and Compass wanted their applications to progress to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors before the end of the year, in accordance with state law.
QTS believes that despite the denials, the supervisors will approve the Prince William Digital Gateway once they review the application that includes the updated proffers.
"QTS is confident it will address all remaining concerns and ultimately win approval from the board of supervisors. QTS is grateful for the commission’s time and dedication and looks forward to finalizing our partnership with Prince William County, which will support taxpayers, educational goals, and public safety priorities," said a QTS spokesperson, on Thursday afternoon.
Moving the application along also means the current board, not the elected board, will vote upon the Prince William Digital Gateway.
While the makeup of the board will be similar with three Republicans and five Democrats, it will be chaired by Deshundra Jefferson, rather than Ann Wheeler. Both are Democrats, but Jefferson said was not in favor of the digital gateway due to its proximity to the Manassas National Battlefield and Conway Robinson State Park.
The Planning Commission will not have another opportunity to vote upon a digital gateway application, meaning they voted to negate their influence.
Sadly, hundreds of people spoke at the meeting that lasted from 2 p.m. Nov. 9, only for the result to carry so little weight.
What is the Digital Gateway
The Prince William Digital Gateway is more than just a data center hub. It would bring approximately 30 data centers around Pageland Lane and the Manassas National Battlefield, and propel Prince William County to become the data center capital of the world.
Data centers are a targeted industry for the county and it is the hope of most supervisors that the gateway will generate hundreds of millions in additional tax revenue for the county. Application proffers include green space, trails, and designated historical and cultural centers, making the proposal more attractive.
The proposal is extremely controversial with citizens, especially those residing within the Gainesville District. They do not think data centers belong in rural and historic areas next to national and state parks. There is also a fear that the data centers would be heard from Heritage Hunt, an over 55 active adult community. There is the additional issue of creating a need for additional power lines and increasing energy usage. In the case of an outage, data centers may run on diesel.
What was proposed in the revised plan?
Supervisors amended the Comprehensive Plan to make way for the digital gateway one year ago. Developers said the commissioners must disregard the testimony of citizens who simply do not want the digital gateway.
The question is not whether it should be done, but how can it follow appropriate guidelines. QTS and Compass’s representatives argued are no longer relevant, and made a case for the updated proffers, which they believe addresses staff’s concerns.
Building heights? Will be limited to two stories. Surface area? Limited to allow for green space. Forest preservation? They will plant a new tree for each tree cut down. Leisure? They offer parks. Funds to manage parks and trails? QTS offered $10,000 per data center building. Electrical grid running through open land? QTS said they would ask that they run over data buildings instead.
Water pollution? Water is being recycled. Noisy chillers on top of buildings? Developers will be blocking them off to mitigate sound.
What if the buildings become obsolete before they are complete? The county would have gotten road improvements paid for. Where will the dirt go as they build? The Quarry up Route 29 in Centreville.
Details to Review
But not everything was perfect with the application. For instance, buildings may still be seen from the national park, but the mitigations are they are only two stories and they will blend in with the environment.
Referring to how they would handle looking for human remains, they would be digging 19,000 holes all over the property and had hired a Civil War historian to advise them.
QTS representative Anthony Calabrese said he is “a zealous advocate of these things. We have agreed to, I think, every request.”
During the proceedings, it was clear that some commissioners, such as Tom Gordy, now Brentsville Supervisor-elect, and Gainesville Commissioner Richard Berry, pushed against the proposals, while others lauded them.
Gordy said while it seems great the applicant proffered parkland and trails, those resources are expensive to manage. (Although the Parks & Rec. representative did not sound especially concerned.)
On the other end of the spectrum, some Commissioners felt the county was expecting too much of the developers.
Commissioner Kuntz asked if county archeologist considers existing power lines a blight on the park’s view shed. Commissioner Brown asked the county, Justin Patton if it is the standard to have no modern element visible from the battlefield.
“That would be fantastic!” He said, but no, it is not the expected standard, although he said he was hesitant to answer questions on behalf of the National Park Service.
Other commissioners also thought they expected a lot of applicants considering they were building near parkland not on parkland. The boundaries of the park were set in 1981, so they asked if it is fair that the park expects them to keep the area pristine for its interest.
At-large Commissioner Patty Kuntz said that there is history everywhere, but it can’t keep them from living and moving forward.
While the applicants’ presentation allowed the community to get a better understanding of the newest application, unfortunately, the commissioners could not vote on it.
Chair Ned-Moser explained it is no one’s fault. The applicant submitted its fourth application in late August. However, the planning department is very short-staffed and was unable to turn it around quickly. Therefore, the applicants were not able to make their adjustments quickly.
How did the votes go?
The vote “yes” for denial broke down 5-3. Sentiments about the desire to move the applications forward followed along party lines.
Gainesville Commissioner Richard Berry motioned for denial after his previous three attempts for deferral failed to receive more than three votes of support.
Commissioners Richard Berry (Gainesville), Cynthia Moses-Ned (Woodbridge/Chair), Juan McPhail (Potomac), Patty Kuntz (at-large member), and Gwendolyn Brown (Neabsco) voted “yes” for denial.
Tom Gordy (Brentsville) and Joseph Fontanella (Coles) and Raheel Sheikh voted “no,” to denial.
“I can’t in good conscience support denial, because that moves the process forward,” Gordy said.
Fontanella said he hates to hear the application denied and have been placed in this position because of an exodus of planning staff given impossible deadlines, not allowed time to do their jobs, and they had to work against “undue influence.”
However, Raheel Sheikh (Occoquan) voted “no,” saying he would prefer to approve the application.
Sheikh then proposed a vote to approve the Nov. 1 submission, which the applications had presented to the commission.
“Yes, I understand the staff does not have enough time,” he said, but he argued they received plenty of information. They listened to staff, the applicants, who presented their updated proposal, and the constituents.
“We’ve seen them, but we haven’t seen them with the analysis,” said Ned-Moses. She said it needs to first be vetted by staff, for reasons of legality and policy. “I would be hesitant to vote on that because, for me, I package it with what has not been reviewed by staff."
Sheikh then withdrew the motion, which no one seconded.
Motion to defer
Before the vote to deny, Commissioner Berry made three motions to defer the Compass application, seeing how it was the first of three.
Commissioners seemed confused about why he was reading the entire summary of the application. It is likely due to the fact that the summary highlights the massive scope of the project and just how much is involved from the rezoning of agriculture to flex tech, to land preservation, significant road projects and changes to the electric grid.
"I’m not willing to have the staff take shortcuts on this. This is the biggest project this county has ever seen,” Berry said, arguing for deferral.
He thought it would make more sense for the commission to consider the merits of the new proposal and provide the supervisors with an accurate assessment of the project.
Brentsville Commissioner Tom Gordy seconded these motions, and Commissioner Fontilla supported them through his votes.
For his first motion, Berry set the new date for the planning commission hearing for January, when it would be heard by a new planning commission and a new board of supervisors.
As that plan failed, Berry offered up two more dates, one before Christmas and another before Thanksgiving. The earlier dates would mean that the same boards would be allowed to vote on the project.
But before the board voted upon the November date, the chair interjected. Chair Ned-Moses noted the date was not the issue.
“I don’t think the issue is the date,” she said. “I think the issue is we have the updated (proffers) for staff to review. The staff just has to do the work.”
Ned-Moses said the changes could be worked out between the staff and the board.
The Chair asked the applicants if they were amenable to a deferral for reasons of having the new staff report available. They said, “No."
Before voting commissioners explained their vote. Although technically this should have been done during a discussion time, the Chair allowed it saying they have done it before.
“I disagree with the vote I’m about to make [to deny],” said Commissioner Kuntz, but added, “I see no reason to further delay. It’s an important and very beneficial project. We need to get it to them.” “
Commissioner Sheikh noted that he did not want to go through this once again.
Gordy responded it was not about what they wanted because they were appointed to be professionals and do their due diligence.
This article may be updated to include citizens' comments.