The Prince William Digital Gateway is poised to become the country's largest data center development after a key vote that clears the way for up to 27 million square feet of digital infrastructure near Gainesville, Virginia.
The Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 to approve a change to the county's comprehensive plan to allow data center development on the Digital Gateway lands. The vote followed a marathon meeting that ran more than 13 hours, with comments from more than 200 residents and heated debate among the supervisors.
The vote was a key milestone for a project that could bring nearly $25 billion in new investment and $400 million in annual tax revenue into Prince William County, according to a financial analysis by county staff. It followed months of debate that underscore how data center development has become a hot button issue in some communities.
The Prince William Digital Gateway is a 2,100-acre technology corridor proposed by homeowners along Pageland Lane, who have organized an initiative to bundle more than 200 properties into a massive business park.
The project has already attracted proposals from two leading developers to develop 18 million square feet of data centers. Compass Datacenters filed plans to rezone 825 acres of land for its project, with plans to build up to 10.5 million square feet of data center capacity. QTS Data Centers seeks to develop an 800-acre campus, with the ability to build about 7.9 million square feet of data center space.
"As this process moves to the next phase, Compass Datacenters is committed to being a good neighbor and working through the County's zoning process to solicit input and feedback stakeholders on our construction and operating plans," said Chris Curtis, SVP of Development and Acquisitions for Comp[ass Datacenters.
"QTS is pleased that the Prince William County Board of Supervisors recognizes the compelling economic and community benefits of the Digital Gateway project and has approved the proposal to move forward," said a company spokesperson for QTS Data Centers. "We are eager to continue working with stakeholders and members of the community to make this project a reality and help Prince William County continue to flourish."
A Vigorous Debate on Data Center Development
The Digital Gateway is controversial because it is adjacent to one of the Manassas Civil War battlefields and a state forest. The proposal has faced opposition from a constellation of groups citing concerns about its impact on the community, the environment and local historic sites.
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 tree lines, making them visible from some areas of the battlefield.
The table is now 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.
Over the last six years, Prince William County has sought data centers as a targeted industry, and in 2016 created a Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District, aligning development with planning priorities and properties with supporting infrastructure. This has helped attract data center campuses for Amazon Web Services, CloudHQ, Iron Mountain, and QTS Data Centers, with projects under development by Digital Realty, STACK Infrastructure, and Yondr Group among others.
But there are just a handful of properties in the county’s Data Center Overlay District that fit the criteria for today’s super-sized data center campuses. As a result, data center builders are now looking beyond the overlay district, and seeking to rezone land in other areas of the county.
Balancing Benefits and Concerns
The vote on the Digital Gateway followed nearly a year of study and debate, including scrutiny of multiple concerns about the project's potential impact on traffic, water, noise, historic sites and quality of life in the county. Advocates of the project noted its potential to boost the local economy and provide needed revenue to support local schools and infrastructure.
A key concern is the availability of power from Dominion Energy to support the data centers, which will be filled with power-hungry servers and storage.
"New substations and transmission lines will be needed," said Alex Vanegas, Senior Planner in the Prince William County Planning Office. "Dominion has been clear that there's a need for additional power transmission in Prince William County, whether the Digital Gateway is approved or not."
More details on additional substations and transmission lines will be available during upcoming rezoning hearings for the data center projects. County planning staff recommended locating future substations on-site, shielded from view from roads and the battlefield. The proposal includes guidance that any building facades that are visible from the battlefield park be non-reflective and use earth tones (such as dark green or dark brown) to blend into the landscape.
The proposal includes several updated provisions to address community concerns:
- The plan "strongly encourages" the use of cooling systems that require little or no water by using a closed-loop cooling system, which will minimize the impact of new data centers on the county's water resources.
- Applicants are requested to work with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). to expand water quality monitoring to detect any changes to water quality and health.
- To address concerns from the community about cemeteries, the plan calls for applicants to conduct cultural resource studies and land disturbance studies. If any human remains are discovered, applicants must comply with all federal and state law regarding the removal and reinterment of those remains to an appropriate location on the property, with archaeological monitoring by the county. This issue was of particular concern due to the possible presence of African-American cemeteries or remains related to Civil War battles.
- The staff recommended strengthening noise mitigation language, requesting that noise from data centers not exceed 60 decibels during the day and 55 decibels at night, as measured from the property boundaries
Supervisors Cite Economic Impact of Data Centers
The supervisors supporting the Digital Gateway cited its economic impact, saying the investment and tax revenues can fund a better future for the county.
We’ve got to move forward and take this shot," said Supervisor Victor Angry, representing the Neabsco District, who said he ran on boosting commercial tax revenue. "We've all got to make tough decisions.”
"I know that this is a good project for Prince William County," said Ann Wheeler, the Board Chair At-Large. "There's not any room left in the Overlay District. There's protections for the battlefield. This is a bold decision, and we need to work together."
Supervisors Janine Lawson and Yesli Vega voted against the proposal, and were sharply critical of the process leading to the vote.
"This is a short-sighted plan that will wreak havoc on our environment, our history and our community, all to appease big tech and a small group of landowners," said Lawson, who represents the Brentsville District.
"This process has not been transparent," said Vega, the supervisor for the Coles District, who said many uncertainties remain about the impact of the project.
Several supervisors expressed disappointment around the tenor of the discussion, which often became contentious.
"We are better than all of the personal attacks and mudslinging that has accompanied this CPA (Comprehensive Plan Amendment)," said Kenny Boddye, Supervisor from the Occoquan District. "This CPA rises to the reality of this moment, with an eye to the future."