Well after the sun rose Wednesday, the page turned to the next chapter for Prince William County -- for better or worse.
Around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Board of County Supervisors voted 5-2 along party lines to amend the county’s Comprehensive Plan to create the PW Digital Gateway data center complex
Supervisors Ann Wheeler (At-Large), Kenny Boddye (Occoquan), Andrea Bailey (Potomac) and Margaret Franklin (Woodbridge) voted in favor of the plan. Supervisors Yesli Vega (Coles) and Jeanine Lawson (Brentsville) voted against it
“This is a bold plan and it will change the landscape of Prince William County,” Wheeler said.
Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, was barred from voting after signing onto the proposal nearly a year ago. As County Attorney Michelle Robl announced his absence from the meeting, many people in the atrium booed.
The project, which proposes 27.6 million square feet of data centers on 2,139 acres along Pageland Lane, has quickly become the most controversial and contentious local land-use proposal in decades. Opponents and proponents have launched personal attacks against each other, and it has spawned recall efforts against Candland and Wheeler, a federal lawsuit against Candland and a federal lawsuit between landowners and the developer.
The project would firmly put Prince William County on track to dethrone Loudoun County as the data center capital of the world.
The vote came after a more than nine-hour public hearing, which eclipsed the length of the Planning Commission’s hearing on the project, and a roughly 14-hour meeting. The hearing started at 10:37 p.m. Tuesday and ended at 8:08 a.m. Wednesday. The board did not vote until 9:46 a.m.
As the meeting started, 254 people were signed up to speak at the public hearing with 137 registered virtually, although many people double booked in-person and online appearances. By the bitter end, 178 spoke in person and 61 spoke virtually for a total of 239.
Opponents of the project ended the night with a slight edge at 128 speakers to 111 in support. Of those who spoke in favor, at least 69 were landowners along Pageland Lane or their families and six were representatives of the planned developers. Many of those in opposition represented homeowners’ associations or environmental groups.
The board’s action changes the land designations from agricultural/estate and environmental resource in the Comprehensive Plan to technology/flex, parks and open space, county registered historic site and environmental resource overlay.
The Comprehensive Plan amendment will provide guidelines for the overall development and does not deal with specific construction plans.
Angry made the motion to approve the proposal immediately after the public hearing ended, including a litany of changes to the staff proposal. Vega was upset with Angry’s actions.
“This is why the public is frustrated because we just heard hours and hours of public comment time and you’re putting forward a motion that you already had pre-planned,” she said. “It’s disgusting behavior and a disservice to the taxpayers of this county.”
Lawson was irate that Wheeler was not allowing her to ask more questions of county staff after the public hearing, saying it ignored the concerns raised in the hearing.
“I don’t know why after 10 hours we would sit here, listen to the public and not even acknowledge some of the questions that have been raised,” she said.
The discussion quickly devolved into arguing as Angry said he did not work with Lawson because he knew she opposed the project and there was “nothing you want to do” to compromise on it. Lawson said the Democrat majority treats the Republican minority like a “battered wife.”
“We’re not going to play charades up here and pretend he wanted to work with me,” she said.
Angry supported the project primarily to raise the county’s commercial tax base.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “We’ve got to move forward and take that shot. I see this as a shot we can take.”
Boddye said he “would have loved” to be considering a mixed-use complex in the area instead of data centers, but that was not the project proposed. He said the county is doing everything it can to mitigate concerns about the project.
“I’m confident that the guardrails that staff has put into this [plan] addresses those impacts,” he said.
QTS Realty Trust Inc. and Compass Datacenters are seeking rezonings to develop the area. Because the Comprehensive Plan amendment was approved, it will weigh heavily in favor of the rezoning requests.
The board’s vote built on the Planning Commission’s recommendation of approval, which included a slew of last-minute changes that would have softened proposed regulations on the project. However, county staff did not support many of those recommendations and the board primarily sided with staff instead of the Planning Commission.
The biggest recommendation that staff and the board did not support was removing a stretch of protected wildlife corridor north of Artemus Road.
However, the board also supported a loosening of stormwater regulations from the initial proposal.
The county said that development should achieve “no net runoff” from the average rainfall, but the Planning Commission’s recommendation built on a letter from the developers requesting runoff be limited to what currently exists on the properties.
The board went with the developers’ proposal, while adding guidelines calling for developers to work with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to expand water monitoring programs along Little Bull Run and Lick Branch.
The board also sided with the developers to allow a substation on land east of the existing powerlines in an area touching Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Lawson and Vega asked the most pointed questions following staff’s presentation on Tuesday, particularly about the need to approve more space for the data center industry. Prince William County has about 6 million square feet operating and about 5.4 million square feet under construction.
“We’ve rezoned a lot of data centers in recent years,” Lawson said. “I contend that we can reach 48 million square feet without disrupting the rural area where there’s no infrastructure for any of this. … What I’m fearful of is that Prince William County is going to become the concrete belt.”
Christina Winn, executive director of the county’s economic development, said that the data center market isn’t oversaturated in Northern Virginia because 99.2% of all data centers are pre-leased before site plans are submitted.
“This industry is different than what you would see in any of these other industries that would be saturated,” she said.
Bailey noted the recommendation from county staff says that any developers follow state and federal laws for reinterment of human remains. The motion approved Wednesday called on developers to reinter human remains on the properties.
“It is very important when we talk about land that we do respect the land and the cultural resources,” Bailey said.
Franklin said development in the area might discover burials or other artifacts that should remain buried.
“There may be some things that are found that are better left in the earth,” she said.
During the marathon hearing, familiar speaker after familiar speaker paraded to the microphone to make their case. Many of the comments have been repeated time and time again over the past 18 months.
Supporters say the project will provide a huge economic boon to the county in an area that’s no longer rural.
Opponents say such a large development would decimate the character of the county’s rural area; they have raised concerns about the availability of power, effects on water quality and the potential that the buildings could quickly become obsolete as technology continues to improve.
The crowd was less raucous than it had been before the Planning Commission in September, although the board had to take an 8-minute recess at 1:19 a.m. Wednesday because the audience repeatedly ignored Wheeler’s warnings to follow rules of decorum.
Robert Franklin of Occoquan summed up the feelings around 4:09 a.m. Wednesday saying "I'll tell you, this is the latest I've been up sober in a long time."
Mary Ridgeway, who is one of the landowners along Pageland Lane, said those who believe Prince William County is still rural are “living a fairy tale.”
“All of us in this room will reap the bounty of the revenue from this project,” she said.
Mac Haddow, who represents the Coles District on the Racial and Social Justice Commission, reiterated the panel’s call to delay consideration of the project until more history could be gleaned regarding Black families who lived and died in the area.
“Take the time to study this,” he said. “Protect these communities.”
Melanie Williams, who is one of the landowners along Pageland Lane, said keeping land-use restrictions of one house per 10 acres is no longer feasible for the area.
“Nobody wants to build million-dollar homes next to powerlines that when you stand next to them make your hair stand up,” she said.
Mark Buscher, who is one of the landowners along Pageland Lane, said data centers would create less traffic and noise than subdivisions in the area.
“Take away the people and it’s quieter and blends better with the battlefield,” he said.
Alyson Satterwhite, who is running for the Gainesville District seat on the board in 2023, said the proposal was too weak and will not hold developers to standards.
“The words would and could are very different than will and shall,” she said.
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.
School Board member Jennifer Wall (Gainesville) said she has received many comments from the public about the project. She opposes the proposal, saying that if the county wants to raise revenue from data centers, it should raise the taxes it charges the industry and build out the existing overlay district.
“I know how it feels to sit on the other side of hostile public comment. But those concerns are real. … I seriously question the rush to build outside the county’s opportunity zone overlay district,” she said. “Our [data center tax] rate is embarrassingly low. Even if we were to double the rate, we would be below our neighboring counties. … That will raise revenue now, not way in the future.”