DATA CENTER/DIGITAL GATEWAY

Planning Commission Recommends CPA for Digital Gateway Despite Unanswered Questions

Planners, not landowners, assumed the role of applicants in the process

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The Prince William Planning Commissioners voted to recommend adding the Prince William Digital Gateway at Pageland Lane in the Gainesville District to be added to the county's comprehensive plan. The motion passed via a 4-3-1 vote, at 6 a.m., Thursday morning, at the end of an 11-hour meeting. 

The decision paves the way for Prince William County to house the nation’s largest data center hub within its once protected 'Rural Crescent' and alters the county indefinitely.

The plan will now be passed along to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, despite the county staff's inability to answer the commissioner's questions. 

The specific recommendation is to redesignate 2,139 acres on Pageland Lane from Agricultural Estate to 1,321 Tech Flex, and 805  Parks & Open Space, Cultural Preservation. 

The final version of the amendment included a recommendation that noise reductions and/or mitigations be required and proper measures taken to protect against negative environmental issues. It also included that the recommendation includes all of the Applicant's requested changes as stated in a letter dated Sept. 9  even though that letter had not been made public. 

 Commissioners Juan McPhail (Potomac), Gwendolyn Brown (Neabsco), and Patty Kuntz (At Large) voted in favor of the plan as well as  Commission Chair Moses Ned Chair (Woodbridge).

Commissioners Richard Barry (Gainesville), Tom Gordy (Brentsville) and Joseph Fontanilla Jr. (Coles) opposed it, and the Occoquan Commissioner, Robert Perry Jr. abstained.

ABOUT THE PROJECT

The 2,139-acre property is located south and west of the Manassas National Battlefield; west of Conway Robinson State Park and Route 29; east of Route 15; and north of Haymarket. Zoned Agricultural Estate, only one residence is allowed per 10 acres.

High-voltage power lines and FiOS cables run through the Pageland property, making it prime real estate for such use. Landowners formed a collective entity to change the land use designation and sell their land for $1 million per acre.

According to estimates based on square footage, the property could house nearly 100 buildings, but nowhere in the planning documents were the number of buildings mentioned. 

OPINIONS

Thirty-five nonpartisan groups opposed the project, including conservation groups and HOAs, but mostly Gainesville District residents came out to speak, defending their beloved Rural Crescent and Battlefield. 

But the project has widespread support on the eastern end of the county, where there is no Rural  Crescent. 

Those in favor of the CPA said it would make Prince William County a leader in the burgeoning data center industry. The county would yield high returns in tax revenue, which would improve schools and increase pay for county employees, all while lowering property taxes, just as Loudoun County had.

The opposition said Rural Crescent ought to be protected, especially when county information said there is enough room in the Data Center Overlay Opportunity Zone for decades of data center development. 

The project's effects remain unknown as there have been no studies conducted on water, noise, soil, or economic impact.

DISCUSSION

Commissioner Brown recommended the motion for approval. 

“The CPA that is before us this morning, presents an opportunity to transform Prince William County’s future in an immensely positive way. While presented with a series of land use strategies, this CPA, in fact, is really an economic development initiative to solidify the county’s commercial tax base and create a long-term revenue source to fund critical community priorities."

"To me, that means more money to put into our educational system. More money to keep our kids safe at school, desperately needed funds to pay our public servants- public safety, teachers, fire workers, policemen, and even more funds to put into mental health services, affordable housing, and even transportation.”

Commissioner Fontanella said he could not support the amendment, as too many contradictory facts and "red flags," emerged during the hearing. 

Fontanella said he grew up in Syracuse next to one of the nation's most polluted lakes. "How did this happen? Jobs. Progress." But ultimately the factories turned the lake into a "cesspool" for future generations.

"We've been advised and warned by a number of environmental organizations as well as the Fairfax Water Authority," the Coles Commissioner said. 

Fontanella asked that the proposal go back to staff to be redone. "We have not been presented with sufficient information to make a decision." 

Commissioner Gordy agreed and asked for the CPA to be deferred. 

"I do know how good intentions can lead to bad consequences. I think we are in a situation where we are being given what appears on the surface to be a great opportunity, but I've been doing this work for now 25 years now, and I've learned that there are second, third order effects that people regret in hindsight," the Brentsville Commissioner said. 

"I think it is our due diligence to get to the truth to some of these questions that were asked...on an extremely consequential planning decision to this county. Once done, the bell cannot be unrung."

But Commissioner Kuntz, the county representative, said she was moved by the county employees who spoke at Tuesday's supervisor's meeting, especially teachers who said they could not afford to live in the county. 

She noted people have committed suicide over a lack of mental health services available and that schools need added security. 

Brown decided to amend the motion to address key concerns. “One, noise is adequately reduced and/or mitigated; two, proper measures are taken to address any negative environmental issues." 

PUBLIC HEARING REGULATIONS

Over 220 people signed up to speak that evening, but many left due to the late hour. Of those remaining, 67 people spoke out passionately against the amendment.

Eighty-five people spoke in favor of the project, but approximately most of them were landowners along Pageland Lane.

According to Prince William's policy, citizens, not applicants, can speak for three minutes during the Public Hearing as the applicant receives time during the presentation.

But no attorney spoke on the applicant's behalf. Rather, the planning staff assumed the role. Who actually was the applicant in the case, appeared to shift throughout the meeting. 

On the day of the Public Hearing, the website described the project as a county-initiated CPA, even as landowners have stated publicly they initiated the project and brought it to the county for consideration. 

Previously loaded documents described the project as citizen-initiated, and, Commissioner Kuntz referenced the "applicants" when amending the resolution. 

"You can't say this isn't a county-initiated project and then come back and say 'the applicant is doing all these things,'" said resident Chris Carroll. "So which is it? I'm just very confused." 

Carroll also asked about other improprieties that put the Planning Department in question, and yet the process moves forward. 

The next day, Commission documents changed to reflect it was citizen-initiated.

Staff Responding to Commissioners

Staff presented and defended the project, often dodging questions, when the answers would depict the project in a negative light. 

When asked how the county could mitigate noise from data centers, the planning representative looked dumbfounded.

The auidence was shocked. Noise from data center cooling systems has become residents' number one concern about data centers outside the overlay district, spurring demonstrations against data centers.

“We will try our best," was their first answer, followed by,  "we are looking into it."

“What do we do if the data centers are decommissioned?” a commissioner asked, noting computers continue to get smaller but smarter.  Planners replied, “the market is strong,” and the buildings could likely be retrofitted. They noted the need for more data for things such as automatic vehicles, virtual reality, meta verse and AI. 

But a Google search indicates that data centers quickly become outdated as technology evolves. Companies often choose to build new state-of-the-art facility. 

Commissioner Gordy asked if a digital gateway was something Prince William County really needs at this time, or in the near future. 

“Info pulled from our own county’s website proves there is plenty of room to meet the expected demand. If we can meet our goals with the areas that we currently have with currently existing infrastructure, do we truly see a need to put this part of our county at risk and expose the county not just to the risk but to the cost?” 

Winn said they projected growth in all of their targeted industries, and that they were asked to consider the amendment. 

"There’s competition for that same land," said Jeff Green of Economic Development. “In total, if there is enough land, is unclear.”

Then, Gordy asked if staff had done a cost estimate on the county’s responsibilities in the project. The answer was "no." The audience responded with a loud groan. However, staff assumed it would be bore by the developer. 

When asked what the projected revenue over time would be, no one could provide an answer, The crowd responded with boos. 

Gordy said he needed those answers since revenue is the entire argument for Digital Gateway. “What I’m looking at is a self-licking ice cream cone.”

In addition to a lack of answers to pressing questions, the brightest highlights of the project were revealed to be nothing more than recommendations, nonenforciable, at least at this time. 

New parks, viewshed mitigations, and sound barriers were more of “suggestions," as to how the applicants and staff would like to see data companies develop the land. 

Buildings could rise beyond  45 feet in the southern section situated nearest to the parks and residences. Developers had the option to simply mitigate the viewshed, perhaps by painting the building sky blue. 

Kyle Hart, Mid-Atlantic Program Manager for National Park Conservation Association, explained that what you see in the documents, won't be what you get.

"The mitigations are wildly insufficient. You will be able to see from within the park. The park feel and visitor experience will never be the same." 

"This is, in my opinion," said Hart. "It's the biggest threat to the National Parks in the region that I have ever seen." They have fought Walmarts next to a park. He compared this to putting 150 big box stores next to the Manassas Battlefield. 

The staff said they couldn't answer as to if the National Park Service approved of the project, saying the project would move traffic out of the battlefield, and when asked for additional comments, they received none.

However, last year, previous Manassas National Battlefield Park Superintendent Brandon Bies described it as, “the single greatest threat to Manassas National Battlefield Park in nearly three decades.”

Hart said the project would actually add more traffic through the park as employees would need to travel on Rt 29 or Rt 234 to get to get the Digital Gateway. 

The proffered parks to align the battlefield are also not in the rezoning application. There is no requirement that they become parks, and actually, there are landowners in that area that are refusing to sell. 

As the unanswered questions piled up, it was the opposition, not the applicants, who grew increasingly worried. They predicted, Commissioners would recommend the project regardless because they had already made up their minds. 

Applicants seemed more cool and collected and left after giving their statements. 

"I have never experienced such a farcical process as this evening," said Elena Schlossberg, Executive Director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County. "The staff is now the applicant to the CPA. Staff is supposed to be an objective arbiter! This process is so corrupt that it has lost the faith of the community, and no decision that can come out of this will be considered fair." 

"They have cut out the residents in every single way. This is county government working with the applicant to ensure nothing we do here will have an impact." 

While the planning office seems to support the applicants, others were more forthright. 

Ray Canizales, Director of Transportation for Prince William County, said Prince William County that would pay for widening Pageland Lane. It would “not be a country road,” anymore, but it would not be the bi-county parkway. It would not be designed for truck traffic. 

Dominion Power said new lines and substations would eventually be required if build out precedes as expected. 

Public Hearing

Speakers appeared to be from two camps. There were the applicants speaking with "the public." Many wore data center t-shirts showing the ugly power lines that ran through Pageland neighborhoods.Some wore stickers that said pro-data center.  

They lauded the data centers, saying they will bring the county progress and wealth that could be passed on to teachers and taxpayers. It would transform the county so it could be prosperous like Loudoun has become. 

One landowner said that taxes on 10-acre homes are $1,000 per month. People cannot afford to live there, so the land designation no longer makes sense. They can become data centers or high-density development. It is unrealistic that it will remain the rural crescent, 

People spoke about how a rural mindset could stifle job growth. 

“If we need to increase business development in the county, let’s do so with projects that look to the future,” said one man. “Bring high-tech jobs that we desperately need.”

Long-time resident Tim Whitmore said he has watched the rural crescent destroy jobs and progress in the county. 

“People opposing it- you have smartphones, digital watches, laptops, and home computers," Whitmore said. “Are you giving up your treasures?” But they are asking that the landowners give up there,  "so you can “take your Sunday drive.”

Besides, young people are so busy on their phones, that they would not even look out the window, someone added. 

Others said this has been the most studied land project in Prince William's history, ready to be passed, why defer it any longer?

But residents and conservationists fought back passionately, saying they were advocating for what is right; they were not motivated by millions of dollars for themselves.

“How dare you guys assume I am against the data center,” said one woman, explaining they belong in the overlay district. "Not near homes, parks, and schools," people repeated. 

“I’m dismayed, hearing more information on how much you don’t know,” one woman told the people on the dais. “You don’t know how much money is going to be made. You haven’t thought about decommissioning these things. That’s significant.”

Elena Schlossberg quoted from a 2016 article in which Pageland applicants Page Snyder and Mary Ann Ghadban strongly defended their land in the rural crescent. Despite already having power lines, they described the land as "picturesque," and among the most beautiful anywhere.

“There is nothing different about Pageland Lane today, but money. Every conservation organization is against it," Schlossberg said. "And who is watching out for us citizens? Our county government staff represented the applicants. Why are applicants being given the same rights as citizens to address this application?"

“The new 21st-century robber barons are here, and they are the big tech companies. I’m not sleeping without dreaming about this nightmare.”

“I’m going to stand up for you,” she said to the residents. “We are going to be here for this community. There is something stronger than money. I am, to be perfectly honest, disgusted by where we are today.”

 “Take time to do the studies,” a Gainesville woman implored the Commissioners. “There are already ill effects from (a data center near) Great Oak (community.)“That should be enough on its own to reconsider. Why should the county prioritize 200 land owners?”

“I don't have something on my phone that has been sent to me from someone who stands to make a lot of money,” said one mother, taking offense to what one of the applicants said about young people. “We hike, we fish,” she said, referring to her sons. 'Data centers in rural areas, near parks, are totally incompatible. '

 “Your county staff did our job for us," said another speaker. "They couldn’t answer any of the questions. Of course, it’s a windfall, and I don’t begrudge them. But you have to look out for our community as a whole. Comprehensive, does that mean ‘hodgepodge and we’ll figure it out later?'"

Some told the Commissioners said over development of data centers is affecting the real estate market in Gainesville, Bristow and Haymarket, because the county wants data centers everywhere. 

"They’re monetarily committed to showing up,” said one man, talking about those promoting the project. “It’s 1 a.m. and we’re here." He said they have jobs to go to in the morning and kids they didn't get to tuck in, yet they are for the greater good. 

'And what about a water study?' he asked. 'Is it so unimportant to the community?; “We’re not even allowed to use Lake Manassas to paddleboard," to keep it pristine, "but it’s okay not doing a water study on the biggest reservoir in the county.

“This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” said a resident named Laura. “I’ve lived all across the world. What is under your feet right now is gorgeous and you cannot get it back. If you are wrong, how are you going to fix it?”

“People fought for this land, and you’re about to plow it down. For what?”

“They all left," she said of the data center folks. “That’s how much they respect you. Why are you doing this? You know you don’t have all the information.”

Prince William Digital Gateway, data centers, Rural Crescent, Gainesville, Commissioners, Planning commission, vote, Sept. 13, Sept. 14, revenue, data center corridor, landowners, Public Hearing, Battlefield National Park, conservation

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