Prince William's Digital Gateway to Combine Tech Flex with Park & Open Space

Goes before Planning Commission, Sept 14


UPDATE: JAN. 2023- The version of the Digital Gateway Plan that made it on to the 2040 Comp Plan did include the parks, open space and mitigations. Being on the Comp Plan is not the same as the land being rezoned. 

UPDATE- SEPT. 22 at 3 p.m.: Please note that the Prince William County Planning Commission recommended a version of CPA that diminishes mitigations detailed in this article. The supervisors could still approve the original form of the CPA, the revised form, or some mixture of the two. 

The Applicant's Sept. 9 letter was not available for review prior to the Commissioner's meeting, (which has become a point of contention) and thus could not be addressed in the article at the time of publication. 

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: The Prince William County Planning Commission will vote tonight upon whether to recommend the rezoning of 2,139 acres along Pageland Lane in the Gainesville Magisterial District for the purpose of the construction of the Prince William Digital Gateway. Of the property, 805 acres are proffered to the county as parks and open spaces.

The land is currently zoned Agricultural/Estate and makes up a significant portion of the county’s Rural Crescent. The commission will send its recommendation to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, which is the final arbiter.

The site is located along Pageland Lane, south of Sudley Road, north of Route 29; east of Conway Robinson Memorial State Park, Heritage Hunt HOA community, Catharpin Valley subdivisions; and west of Manassas National Battlefield Park and Sudley Mountain subdivision.

The plan is controversial since it would decimate the 80,000-acre rural crescent and because the land in question surrounds the Manassas National Battlefield and Conway Robinson State Park. However, of the 2,139 acres, now zoned Agricultural or Estate Residential/Environmental Resource, not all would not all become Tech Flex.

In the current version of the Comp Plan Amendment, 1321.5 acres would become Tech Flex. Tech Flex would be mostly data centers with secondary uses including business and retail. 

Another 805 would become Parks and Open Space, County Registered Historical Site and Environmental Resource Overlay. The open space sections align along the state and the national park. The rezoning comes at the request of property owners along Pageland Lane who formed a collective entity. Should the zoning be approved, the Digital Gateway would essentially become a “Data Center Ally” in Prince William County that would rival that of Loudoun County.  

Pageland Lane became codified as part of the Rural Crescent in 1998. Under its current zoning, only one home is allowed per every ten acres. Landowners say that the land use policy is outdated as the land is “too small to farm,” and bigger than what is needed for a personal residence.

Homeowners say the land has been depreciated by a right-of-way that brought extremely tall high-power powerlines across their properties and commuter traffic coming to and from Loudoun County. However, it is the very same powerlines that make the area an ideal spot to host data centers.

Landowners will make nearly $1 million per acre, leaving the average landowner making just short of $10 million. But landowners say it is not only about them. The land provides a great benefit to the county because it supplies billions of dollars in revenue over a period of time.

Prince William County Planners have recommended the rezoning. They consider Data Center Tech a ‘target industry’ that will significantly bolster the county’s tax base and lessen the burden on residents. "In 2021, Prince William County had $79.8 million in tax revenue from data centers more than double the total from 2018,” said Data Center Frontier.

This year, the county began taxing data centers at $150 for $100 of assessed value via its computer and peripheral equipment tax. That will increase to $2 per $100 in 2025. After those four years, the county supervisors are free to revise the tax rate.

In Loudoun County, data centers pay $4.20 for every $100 of assessed value, but that value is in decline as equipment ages. Prince William also pays a higher real estate tax rate than Loudoun County, which data centers will also be paying. It could take 15-25 for the data centers to reach their full tax revenue potential, but the county will bring in some of that revenue immediately and annually. 

Economically, the plan recognizes targeted industries to help the county achieve a “resilient” economy, as evidenced by the industry's viability during the pandemic.  

Pageland Lane landowner Mary Ann Ghadban commissioned Phillip M. Sandino of Data Energy Consulting to do a viability report on the Pageland Land Digital Corridor. These highlighted the positive aspects of the Prince William Digital Gateway as a persuasive argument for data centers. 

The report recommended Prince William County take full advantage of the emerging industry and secure its position as a leader in data center development before other jurisdictions do so. To do this, it needs its own data center corridor that is more cost-effective than to piecemeal parcels of land.

Prince William County currently has an overlay district created in 2016. At the time the county approved 8,700 acres for data centers. In spring, Prince William Director of Economic Development Christina Winn said that only 100 acres were left that were still "market viable," according to Prince William Times

But Haymarket Councilman Bob Weir looked at the county's own tables and asserts there is more land still available in the overlay than the county is acknowledging, approximately 1,250 acres, even as they plan data centers outside the overall district, even encroaching on residential. 

The applicant's viability report asserts Pageland Lane is the perfect location for a larger data center corridor due to the Dominion Power line easements that bisect the property and its proximity to Loudoun. There will be “NO NEW OVERHEAD LINES,” asserts the report.

The Planning Department said energy needs are yet unclear. “Generally speaking, and dependent on how the PW Digital Gateway is developed over time, Dominion Energy expects that new substations and transmission lines will be necessary to meet NOVEC’s needs…Additional information will be provided as it becomes available from the utility providers.”

Applicants believe transportation developments such as widening Pageland Lane will also be beneficial to commuters, enhancing transportation away from the battlefield, while not building the Bi-County Parkway, which residents do not want.

“There is no correlation between PW Digital Gateway and the Bi-County Parkway. The traffic related to the CPA will need to be mitigated in some way. The Bi-County Parkway was a regional facility that was to connect two interstates,” the documents said. “When shown on the County’s Thoroughfare Plan, Pageland Lane and the Bi-County Parkway were not the same facility (sic). They were two distinct and separate facilities serving two different purposes.”

“PW Digital Gateway’s analysis stated that a 4-lane Pageland Lane as a minor arterial with six signalized intersections between Sudley Road and Rt. 29 could handle the traffic generated by its development, and therefore it did not include a model run including the Bi-County Parkway.”

A large group of citizens continue to have their concerns about the impact on wildlife, water table, environmental resources, soil, and stormwater runoff. They have a concern they are losing their agricultural land, something which Loudoun has thus far protected. If this passes, some preservationists assert Prince William County no longer values its rural areas, and soon all of it will be developed.

Environmental groups seek to protect the rural crescent for reasons of conservation, wildlife, beauty, quality of life for residents, and ensuring natural resources for the future.

They fear this significant incursion into the rural crescent would quickly increase. They have concerns over how the lessening of rural lands will affect the whole region. Will energy costs be passed off to residential consumers? Does Virginia have the capacity to power all these new data centers? Will runoff hurt the area's drinking water supply? 

County planners approved the project believing action strategies to mitigate potential detrimental effects. On the favorable end, according to the planners, it protects wildlife and viewshed and prioritizes preservation on more than a third of the property. The plan increases public access to open space and manages heritage and historical spaces by 805 acres.

The Prince William Digital Gateway includes 10 miles of trails connecting Conway Robinson State Forest to Long Park in Haymarket. This is land that everyone can access and enjoy. Applicants argue that those in opposition like to say they are taking 2100+ and ignore the land that would be preserved.

They note that the open space aligns with the Manassas National Battlefield and State Park. The thinnest buffer along one corner of the Heritage Hunt community is 800-1,000-feet and includes ancient evergreen trees that exceed the height of the data centers.

Viewshed studies show that nowhere will people be able to view the data centers, and with such a buffer they do not believe anyone will be able to see the data from homes or the parks.  According to applicants, the data buildings will also be 45-60 feet in height, much lower than others being proposed in the county, they will be strategically placed considering elevation. 

Many across the county are in favor of the Prince William Digital Gateway. School Board Chairman Babar Lateef believes it will bring in money to help the schools. 

Residents opposed to the PW Digital Gateway want to bring attention to what is not in the study, nor released to the public. Nowhere does it say how many data centers will be clustered on the property nor have any maps been made available. They do not know how many square feet the data centers would occupy. They do not know how loud they will be. They do not know if they will be traditional air-cooling data centers or employ more innovation technologies. 

According to Dr. John Lyver, a retired NASA scientist who specialized in calculations and conducted his own sound study on data centers, the 1300 acres could fit up to 95 data centers!

Data centers have loud cooling systems and residents of Great Oak in Manassas can hear three operational data centers with a 600-foot natural barrier.

Lyver said sound is summative, so when you cluster 95 data centers, all buzzing with a loud, monotone hum, how loud will it be?

While this plan does not have data centers immediately up against homes or schools, Lyver and the Prince William HOA Roundtable still ask the county to have sound engineers conduct a professional noise study.

Datacenter noise can cause depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and drive people to distractions. The current noise ordinance will not apply to data center noise, since cooling systems are exempt. It does not apply to construction noise either.

Landowners countered that new data centers are quieter than Amazon's in Manassas, and the situation is not comparable to the Bristow data center sites, in which data centers would practically be in people’s backyards. They believe Lyver's data is exaggerated if it is based on the Amazon situation. 

A noise study may be able to be conducted before the plan goes to the supervisors for a public hearing.

At the planning commission meeting, Gainesville residents are more hopeful that they will receive fair representation than on the board of supervisors, where Supervisor Candland, who lives on Pageland, has to recuse himself.  Their planning commissioner, Richard Berry was the only supervisor to vote against the Devlin Tech Park proposal. 

Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson-R has spoken disapprovingly of the project due to its incursion into the Rural Crescent. 

The public hearing begins at 7 p.m. It is possible that following a long session of public input deliberations could go on until morning. Protests and demonstrations are planned before the hearing. Everyone who signs up is eligible to speak for 3 minutes. 

data center, study, board of county supervisors, Pageland Lane, Digital Gateway, Prince William Digital Gateway,