Like many Northern Virginia communities, Prince William County has long worked to lure data centers to the area — but now lawmakers are starting to envision a future without them.
Officials estimate there are already 3.5 million square feet worth of the massive computing facilities in Prince William, with another eight data centers (totaling 1.5 million square feet) in the pipeline. But county supervisors are starting to take a closer look at where they should allow the data centers, or whether they should continue to accept new applications for the buildings at all.
“These used to be very reliable economic development projects for us,” said Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville. “But too much of a good thing can turn into something not so good.”
The board has run into its share of headaches with one notable data center project in Haymarket — the controversy over a Dominion Energy transmission line needed to power the project has roiled communities in western Prince William for years — but supervisors called for a discussion on the topic at their Nov. 28 meeting because of different concerns.
In particular, some lawmakers worry that the facilities (which often require massive tracts of land) are taking up prime properties coveted by other businesses, particularly in the western end of the county, and now they’re mulling zoning changes to try to locate them elsewhere.
“We need to be moving these away from our main arteries where other businesses want to go,” said At-Large Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican. “You don’t need a major road to get to a data center, because they only have a handful of employees.”
Although the board isn’t committing to any change yet, supervisors directed staff to study potential changes to its “data center opportunity zone,” a 10,000-acre planning district the board created in May 2016 to ease zoning applications for projects within its boundaries.
The district is largely along the path of the Prince William Parkway as it runs between Va. 28 outside Manassas and Interstate 66 in Gainesville. Stewart would like to look at moving data centers away from the road, should other businesses by interested in the area.
“They’re taking up land on 234, and that’s supposed to be the county’s economic development spine road,” Stewart said. “They’re pushing up prices on employers looking all along there.”
Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, wasn’t entirely sold on that line of thinking, however. He pressed county staffers for a concrete example of a business hoping to move into that area, only to be turned away due to a data center development.
“To say we want to even further restrict the places where we want these to go to benefit another industry, we need to know if another industry is actually trying to come here,” Nohe said.
Jeff Kaczmarek, executive director of the county’s economic development department, said he couldn’t think of an instance where a data center project directly precluded another business from moving in. Nevertheless, he did say that data centers tend to compete pretty sharply with companies in the “logistics industry,” as companies in both sectors need large properties to build their facilities.
“Data center companies, in particular, are willing to pay a premium for property, because they need so much space,” Kaczmarek said.
Stewart pointed to a recent presentation to the county’s Chamber of Commerce by renowned regional economist Stephen Fuller as evidence of another problem with committing so much land to data centers: There’s no guarantee they’ll be necessary in the future.
“Remember how big a computer was 15 or 20 years ago?” Fuller told the chamber. “I wonder how long data centers will survive. It makes me think they could be overbuilt, because you don’t know what to do when you’re done with them. It seems a shame to put them in places we know you will need in the long haul.”
Stewart noted that this may not be an issue for the county for the next “30 or 40 years,” but he also stressed that future boards would likely appreciate the current group of supervisors thinking about the problem sooner rather than later.
“At some point, they’ll be blighted,” Stewart said. “No one knows when that’s going to be. But we need to consider what happens if we won’t need them anymore.”
County staff will present supervisors with possible changes to the data center planning zone in March.