Prince William County officials have released a draft plan for approving the PW Digital Gateway, but planners have not yet taken a stance on the proposal.
County staff released a draft plan for the digital gateway on Friday that would impose stricter regulations for the project than those proposed by developers.
The document lays out staff's recommendations for how the county could incorporate the digital gateway into the Comprehensive Plan if the Board of Supervisors chooses to approve the project.
However, it stops short of giving any recommendation for the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors. Interim Planning Director Rebecca Horner said a formal recommendation would come when the proposal is ready for a public hearing.
Last summer, landowners along Pageland Lane submitted a request to change the land designation of their properties in the Comprehensive Plan from agricultural zoning to technology zoning for the PW Digital Gateway.
The Board of Supervisors later expanded the request to cover 2,100 acres, which could pave the way for 27.6 million square feet of data centers, nearly as much data center space as is currently in use or under construction in neighboring Loudoun County, the world’s largest concentration of such facilities.
A Comprehensive Plan amendment only changes what the county says it hopes for future use of the land. It does not bind the county, the board or the landowners to any guaranteed future uses. The properties would still require zoning approval to allow data centers.
The project 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 allegations of backroom dealing by board Chair Ann Wheeler and a recall effort against Gainesville Supervisor Pete Candland.
In November, Candland and his wife were among 19 homeowners in the Catharpin Farm Estates neighborhood who joined the Comprehensive Plan amendment, a decision that means he must recuse himself from votes on any data center proposals along the Pageland Lane corridor.
Supporters of the PW Digital Gateway say it will provide a huge economic boom to the county in an area that’s no longer rural. Opponents say such large developments 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.
Compass Datacenters and QTS Realty Trust Inc. have filed rezoning requests for the development. Their combined projects cover 1,636 acres and 18.42 million square feet of data centers, substantially less than the 27.6 million square feet touted by the initial application.
The plan released Friday would put significant regulations on the project to mitigate its impact.
The proposal calls for a hard limit of 27 million square feet of data centers in the entire area and discourages any other heavy industrial uses.
County officials emphasize a need to split certain regulations between the northern end and the southern end, which is near Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Robinson State Forest.
On the northern end, building height would be limited to 85 feet with limited exceptions. Staff recommends limiting height, with narrow exceptions, to 45 feet in the southern end, with less floor area density.
The developers have proposed 100 feet in the north and 65 feet in the south.
The plan heavily emphasizes the need to protect historical resources through detailed plans with rezonings and detailed exhibits showing the potential impact on views from the battlefield. On buildings facing the battlefield, the plan calls for restricting building materials to non-reflective surfaces with dark green or dark brown paint.
“Due to the cultural sensitivity of this area, all development within the PW Digital Gateway Special Study Area should be developed with the utmost sensitivity to cultural resources and historic viewsheds while leveraging opportunities to provide meaningful contributions to preservation and interpretation of the extensive local and national history,” the plan says. “Protection of historic viewsheds is important to the economic development of Prince William County, as well as preservation of significant national history.”
County officials call for any rezoning to conduct a detailed cultural resources analysis, with the potential to require more intense study depending on the project. It calls for preservations of graveyards throughout the area and study of the boundaries of the Settlement Community and Thornton School. The school was created to educate freed slaves and was located at the corner of Pageland Lane and Thornton Drive.
Throughout the corridor, the plan recommends 150-foot buffers on all sides of the development. It says companies should be encouraged to use minimum water and implement sustainability initiatives.
Any potential water capacity increase required by the project is recommended to be paid for through development fees.
Beyond the digital gateway, the data center industry has quickly become the center of land-use debates in Prince William County. The issue has centered on a 23-year-old policy to restrict development in about 117,000 acres, or about 52% of county land, to no more than one home for every 10 acres with strict restrictions on the expansion of public sewer lines.
The policies that enacted those protections have been weakened this year through several party-line votes, with Democrats voting together to examine land-use topics countywide rather than only in the designated development area.
The county has not scheduled a public hearing on the Comprehensive Plan amendment or the rezonings.