Neighbor vs. Neighbor: A Community Debates Data Center Growth

Aug. 8, 2022
The Prince William Digital Gateway in Manassas is prompting heated debate between groups of residents about the role of data centers in their community. The project was proposed by local landowners seeking to capitalize on rising valuations for data center land.

MANASSAS, Va. – As you drive down Pageland Lane, you begin to see the signs about data centers along the side of the road. Then more, and larger signs. They continue for about a mile.

But they’re not protesting a data center project. The signs are expressing their support for the Prince William Digital Gateway, and heralding the benefits of new data centers.

“Data Centers = Better Schools.”
“Data Centers = Jobs in PWC.”
“Data Centers = More Funds for Parks.”

It’s no surprise that the Prince William Digital Gateway is the focus of heated debate in Prince William County, which is already familiar with data center controversies. What’s unique is that the Digital Gateway project is being promoted by homeowners along Pageland Lane, who have organized an initiative to bundle more than 200 properties into a massive 2,100-acre data center park. The project has its own website, complete with a QR code displayed on the lawn signs.

The Digital Gateway proposal provides a vivid illustration of how data center development is driving up property values in Northern Virginia. Back in 2018, land for data center projects in Prince William County went for about $270,000 an acre. By early 2021, similar parcels were fetching $1 million an acre. Deals closing in recent months value Prince William data center land at between $1.5 million and $2.5 million per acre.

The soaring land values have some residents looking at potential windfalls if they sell their property. That includes the homeowners along Pageland Lane, part of Prince William County’s “Rural Crescent,” where most homeowners have at least 10 acres of land.

This has created an unusual dynamic. We’ve often seen groups of residents banding together to fight a large data center company or utility line. The Digital Gateway initiative features a neighbor vs. neighbor battle between groups of residents with different visions for the future of their community.

The Digital Gateway backers are facing opposition from a constellation of groups citing concerns about its impact on the community, the environment and local historic sites.

Data center developers are keenly interested in the Digital Gateway. If approved, it could house one of the world’s largest concentrations of digital infrastructure. QTS Data Centers and Compass Datacenters have already submitted rezoning proposals to build nearly 18 million square feet of data center capacity at the Digital Gateway – a capacity about 5 times the current size of the entire data center market in Greater Phoenix.

The site could support additional development beyond that, with a proposed cap of 27 million square feet. It’s exactly the type of mega-campus coveted by cloud computing companies, with enough land and power for years of growth.

The table is seemingly set for Prince William County to attract large data center deals, especially with Loudoun County facing delays in data center construction due to localized transmission constraints on the Dominion Energy grid. The county has lots of land, power and a big opportunity.

But does a massive data center campus align with the county’s vision of its future? Prince William officials will decide in coming months, and they can expect plenty of feedback from residents on both side of the debate.

A Heated Debate About Digital Development

In our 2022 annual forecast, Data Center Frontier predicted that community resistance to data center development would take center stage in 2022.

“There’s a growing narrative that data centers are undesirable neighbors, and if this sentiment continues to build, it could slow growth in key markets,” we wrote. “Community resistance is becoming a real challenge in some of the most important data center markets. That includes Northern Virginia, where data center development is creating heated debate in Prince William County, an important expansion market.”

The Digital Gateway proposal must clear a number of hurdles before it can become a reality. The project’s backers have filed plans to amend the Prince William County Comprehensive Plan for the creation of a technology corridor along Pageland Lane. If that effort succeeds, the next step would likely be zoning changes to develop data centers on the Gateway properties.

The county planning department has a section of its web site dedicated to the Digital Gateway proposal. In a separate but related process, Prince William County is considering an expansion of the county’s Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District,

The key decisions on these issues will be made by the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, which has asked county staff to study the land use, traffic and environmental impacts of the proposal. The public discussion is already heated, as opponents of the Digital Gateway have filed recall petitions targeting two board members over issues related to the project.

The Digital Gateway faces opposition on several fronts, most notably from the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, which previously waged a four-year battle against a power line to support an Amazon Web Services data center in nearby Haymarket. A portion of the proposed tech corridor borders the Conway Robinson State Forest and a section of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, which prompted noted filmmaker Ken Burns to weigh into the discussion.

“I fear the devastating impact the development of up to 2,133 acres of data centers will have on this hallowed ground,” wrote Burns, known for his PBS documentary series about the Civil War and National Park System, in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.

The entrance to the Manassas National Battlefield Park, framed by high-capacity utility transmission lines for Dominion Energy. (Photo: Rich Miller)

Proponents of the Digital Gateway say the tranquility of the battlefield – and the entire neighborhood – has already been altered by a major power transmission line from Dominion Energy, which runs alongside the park, with towers that rise above the treelines, making them visible from some areas of the battlefield.

“We are a united group of longtime landowners and stakeholders whose property values and ruralness have been destroyed by outside forces,” says the PW Digital Gateway web site. “Our overarching message is this: PAGELAND IS NO LONGER RURAL. This is due to transmission lines, industrial development around us, the ‘Pageland Autobahn’ of truck and thru traffic to and from Loudoun, and the reality of the new Rt.234 Bypass.”

The Digital Gateway applicants say the project could bring as much as $30 billion in capital investment into Prince William. “There is no better ‘bang for your buck’ than bringing data centers,” the backers say. “The PW Digital Gateway could skyrocket the county’s budget and add $700 million annually for schools, public services, transportation, reducing residential taxes, and more.”

County financial experts estimate the project’s actual likely financial impact at $24.7 billion in new investment and $400 million in annual tax revenue – lower than the numbers outed by the project’s backers, but still a massive opportunity for business growth.

Opponents Cite Impact on Environment, Historic and Cultural Sites

The Prince William Digital Gateway proposal faces opposition from a number of community groups. These include:

  • The Coalition to Protect Prince William County, which has used its web site, town hall meetings and even a protest outside a QTS data center to present their case. The group has deployed yard signs of its own, saying “Save The Rural Crescent” and “No To Data Centers” and sharing the URL of the coalition web site.
  • The Coalition to Protect National Parks and the Rural Crescent, a coalition of 11 environmental groups and battlefield protection societies, including the Piedmont Environmental Council, Prince William Conservation Alliance, Manassas Battlefield Trust, Sierra Club and Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area. The group has shared a comprehensive storymap sharing its perspective on data center development and local conservation.
  • The Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare, which seeks to protect African-American graveyards and cultural sites in the area along Pageland Lane, which “represent a unique rural and cultural landscape.” Coalition founder Frank Washington told a town hall meeting that the group is seeking to protect the history of slave and free slave communities in the area. “We are fighting to preserve the history of the dead and their freedom to rest in peace, undisturbed by data centers, roads or power lines,” said Washington.

Some critics of the Digital Gateway cite the scale of the project and its potential impact on their region.

“The county has articulated no end goal for data center development,” said Gainesville resident Bill Wright in an April 28 forum.  “Are we to believe their appetite is unlimited?  What other priorities will be subordinate to the insatiable demand of data centers? Are our entire lives hostage to streaming video? Where will our citizens live, work, learn and play if we must all take a back seat to the relentless march of concrete behemoths?”

A common question is why data center development cannot be contained within the county’s data center overlay district. In a recent memo to the county supervisors, Executive Director for Economic Development in Prince William County Christina Winn noted that most data center requests are for 100 acres of contiguous land. Of the 8,700 acres of land in the Data Center Overlay Zone, “there are only two sites that would meet the 100-acre scenario of a data center requirement,” Winn wrote.

For more on the Overlay District and data center development interest, see the related story Prince William County Weighs Proposals That Could Accelerate Data Center Growth.

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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