PW Digital Gateway: Data Center Firms Seek to Address Community Concerns

April 12, 2023
Can the world's largest data center development forge new ground in how digital infrastructure fits into sensitive landscapes? Compass and QTS outline plans to build 23 million SF of space over the next 10 years in Northern Virginia.

Can the world's largest data center development forge new ground in how digital infrastructure fits into sensitive landscapes? After more than a year of intense controversy, two developers have released detailed plans for the Prince William Digital Gateway, proposing to build 23 million square feet of data center space over the next 10 years in Northern Virginia. 

For Compass Datacenters and QTS Data Centers, the rezoning submissions are an opportunity to address community concerns about the project's impact on local water, noise. traffic and historic sites that include African-American cemeteries and the nearby Manassas Battlefield National Park. 

"We are committed to being a good neighbor to the residents of Prince William County," Compass said, adding that it understands "the importance of delivering quality developments that are harmonious with the unique needs and requirements of the surrounding community. We take this commitment very seriously."

Compass has shared extensive details of its plans on a special section of its web site for Prince William resident in which it outlines the plans for its portion of its project, the Compass Datacenters Prince William County Campus I. Compass says it has conducted 18 months of "rigorous analysis," which is reflected in the details of its plans.

The scope of the project has grown by 5 million square feet since the initial filings of interest from the developers, with both Compass and QTS expanding their planned square footage. The Digital Gateway was already the largest data center MegaCampus ever proposed.

A Holistic Project at Internet Scale

The extensive information sharing by Compass appears to be unique in the history of the date center industry, and reflects a trend DCF highlighted in our 2023 industry forecast - the growing narrative that data centers are noisy neighbors and devour vital community resources like water and electricity. Prince William County has been the epicenter of community resistance to data center development, which has dominated political discourse and led to a 4-hour supervisors meeting in which 300 residents shared comments on the Digital Gateway proposal.

The other applicant, QTS Data Centers, said it has collaborated with Compass to "ensure consistency with the Board of County Supervisors' desire to achieve a holistic land use evaluation." QTS said these efforts "have resulted in a unique opportunity to create an interconnected system of reforestation areas, preserved forested areas, wildlife corridors, parks, and cultural resources preservation that protect and enhance significant environmental and cultural assets."

The Compass rezoning application also includes a 30-page visual guide developed jointly by Compass and QTS with maps, graphics and imagery of their vision for the development. The Digital Gateway is controversial and has faced opposition from a constellation of groups citing concerns about its impact on the community, the environment and local historic sites.

The Prince William Digital Gateway is a 2,100-acre technology corridor proposed by homeowners along Pageland Lane, who organized an initiative to bundle more than 200 properties into a massive business park.

County finance officials estimate that the Prince William Digital Gateway represents a potential investment of $24.7 billion, and annual tax revenue of $400.5 million. County revenue from data center taxes is expected to hit $100 million in 2023. 

Project Grows by 5 Million SF

The rezoning applications incorporate many recommendations from the county planning department and supervisors, which were developed during months of extensive feedback from residents and stakeholders. They also includes data and studies from the applicants that may help focus the conversation about the project.

The proposals are unlikely to satisfy all of the critics of the Digital Gateway project. Some residents and conservation groups have expressed specific concerns about aspects of the project like water management and battlefield views that are addressed in the Compass plan. Others believe the project is in the wrong location, while some critics oppose data center development in any form.

Here's a summary of the Compass filing and how it seeks to address community concerns:

  • Manassas Battlefield Impact: A major point of contention has been avoiding any impact impact on the nearby Manassas Battlefield historic area. Compass worked with viewshed survey specialist Digital Design and Imaging Services to assess views from 14 points within the Manassas Battlefield National Park. The study found that just the roofline of one Compass building would be visible from any of those locations, and only if the structure was 90 feet tall. Compass will limit the maximum building height in that area to 60 feet. The full 191-page study was filed with the Compass rezoning application and is available on the county web site.
  • Preservation of Sites of Historic Significance: In response to community concerns about the protection of African-American cultural sites, Compass conducted a detailed survey of its campus to identify graveyards and other sites with historic significance. and has modified its project to leave several areas undisturbed, including three cemeteries. Any discovered artifacts will be turned over to the county for professional preservation. The developer says it will present a proposal for honoring the freed slaves and Native Americans who resided on the site to the County's Historical Commission to develop a Settlement and Thornton School Interpretive Center for the presentation of all discovered artifacts to provide educational opportunities for area students and scholars.
  • Water Management: Critics of the Digital Gateway projects have expressed concern about its impact on water management, especially any impact on the Occoquan Reservoir, which provides drinking water for local residents. Compass says it "will not utilize groundwater, surface water withdrawals, or surface water discharges for cooling purposes associated with data center use," and will remove more than 100 septic systems on the property and discontinue farming activities that used fertilizers and pesticides. Both Compass and QTS plan to extend the public water and sewer systems to the property, which should improve on-site water management. Compass also says it will work with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to improve water quality and monitoring, and has hired Bob Bowcock, an expert who has worked closely with activist Erin Brockovich to protect drinking water from industrial impact.
  • Traffic and Roads: Compass and QTS say they will widen approximately 3.5 miles of Pageland Lane by expanding the roadway from two to four lanes, including 6 roundabouts to calm traffic, with planted medians and perimeter buffers.
  • Construction Impact and Sustainability: Compass says new technology has dramatically decreased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the production of the materials used construct its data centers. That includes the use of CarbonCure manufactured concrete, which uses sequestered CO2 from the atmosphere to reduce CO2 emissions and the volume of concrete. Compass will also use synthetic fibers, or "virtual rebar" in the foundational slabs at all our campuses to further reduce the overall GHG emissions. The company also uses Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (HVO) to fuel its back-up generators instead of diesel to reduce GHG emissions by up to 85% per unit.
  •  Noise Impact on Residential Areas: Noise from data center operations is a growing concern in Prince William County. Compass notes that the comprehensive plan specifies that noise levels cannot be above 60dBA during the day and 55dBA at night when measured from the property boundary. "The Compass Datacenters' site will adhere to these benchmarks and Compass will also be installing the amount of sound enclosures around generators and other mechanical equipment necessary to operate within the established thresholds to minimize any impact on cultural and residential communities," the company says. "Compass will also conduct its own sound study to ensure our continued compliance with all noise and sound-related requirements."

For more detail, see the Prince William County web site for the complete submission. No date has been set for hearings on the applications.

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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