If you want to see what western Prince William County might look like in 20 years, drive north on Route 28, just past Dulles International Airport. Take the Waxpool Road (Route 625) flyover exit, which goes over southbound 28 and look around you. As far as the eye can see are monolithic buildings in various shades of gray with huge air-conditioners on top.
Those two- and three-story buildings are among the 25-million-plus square feet of data centers that have been built in the Ashburn area of Loudoun County over the past 10 years. Have they contributed to the county budget, helping to keep taxes lower for residents? Yes, according to most indications. But at what cost? Has the additional tax revenue been worth the loss of trees and greenery? Has it been worth potential impacts on air and water quality that may not be known for decades? And has it been worth creating what, quite frankly, are eyesores?
Those are among the questions the Prince William Board of County Supervisors will have to ask over the next few months as it considers a proposal to change the county’s comprehensive plan to target data center development on 2,100 acres along bucolic Pageland Lane, north of Interstate 66. Already two data center developers have filed large rezoning requests for portions of that land.
The PW Digital Gateway proposal has already been discussed at numerous board meetings and on these pages. That debate is only going to get more intense as the supervisors’ vote nears. For not only will this decision chart the county’s course for decades to come, but it also will likely be the top issue when the entire board is up for re-election next year.
And it has created some strange bedfellows. Among those opposed to expanding the district are Democratic Del. Danica Roem and Republican Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, who are about as far apart on the political spectrum as possible.
Among those who support the plan are a group of Pageland residents who passionately (and successfully) opposed previous developments in the area, including Disney’s America in the 1990s and, more recently, construction of a Bi-County Parkway.
Indeed, opponents have gone so far as to file recall petitions against two board members – one from each party. Republican Pete Candland is targeted because he lives on Pageland and is among landowners seeking the change – thus meaning he can’t vote on the plan that affects his district more than any other. And Democratic Chair Ann Wheeler owned stock in several companies tied to the data center industry.
So as the debate heats up, here are a few questions we think members of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors and, ultimately, the voters of Prince William should be asking:
What happens to data centers when the amount of data that today requires hundreds of computer servers can fit on a device the size of a smartphone?
What additional electric transmission lines will be necessary to accommodate more data centers?
What roads will need to be built or widened to accommodate construction traffic?
What long-term impacts do all those cooling units have on air quality?
What long-term impacts do the huge impervious surfaces of data centers have on water quality?
What consideration should board members give to the fact that the supervisor who represents the district that will be most affected can’t participate in the vote?
Finally, it’s worth noting that Prince William already has about 10,000 acres in its data center overlay district. That represents almost 5% of all land in the county – a higher percentage if you back out undevelopable land that is part of Marine Corps Base Quantico, the Prince William Forest Park, and the Manassas National Battlefield.
That’s enough land to accommodate 33.4 million square feet of data centers, according to a report prepared for the county. That should satisfy demand through this decade and into the next and is more square feet than currently is built out in Loudoun – considered the data center capital of the world. (Indeed, Loudoun supervisors have started to push back against designating additional land for data centers.)
That means the biggest question the Prince William board should ask is this: How many data centers are enough? And will the extra tax revenue they generate add to the county’s quality of life enough to offset the potential negative impacts?
We hope supervisors will consider these questions carefully, seek informed, unbiased answers and not just vote along party lines. Because this is an issue that transcends politics. It will determine what we want to be as a community. Are we in a race to be the data center capital of the world? Or are some things more important than money?