Prince William approves Digital Gateway plan to meet rising data center demand

Proposed conversion of agricultural and residential area to tech corridor spurred months-long fight

By: - November 2, 2022 3:38 pm

A view of transmission lines that run through Prince William County. (Nathaniel Cline)

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday morning on a land use plan that will allow for the development of data centers across 2,100 acres in Gainesville previously intended for agricultural use.

The board voted 5-2 in favor of the plan, known as the Prince William Digital Gateway, after 14 hours of discussion and a public comment period that stretched past 7 a.m.

The vote, which fell along party lines, has roiled Prince William for months, sparking both fierce opposition and support and giving rise to accusations against some county officials over potential conflicts of interest. 

Republican Supervisor Peter Candland — the only Republican on the board in favor of the plan —  recused himself after selling his property within the corridor and joining other Pageland Lane property owners to back the project. Democratic Chair-at-Large Ann Wheeler, who had faced criticism for previously holding stock in Blackstone, Inc., which purchased one of the companies asking for rezonings along the corridor, said the county commonwealth’s attorney had determined she had no conflict preventing her from participating in the vote.

Last month, the county Planning Commission recommended the Digital Gateway plan be adopted along with measures aimed at reducing noise and addressing potential negative environmental impacts.

Democratic Supervisor Victor Angry, who made the motion Wednesday to approve the plan, said he believes the board’s decision will move the county forward in lowering residential taxes and raising the commercial tax base.

“I want to raise our commercial tax base, and I noticed that doesn’t happen overnight,” said Angry. “I could be out of office when all this money starts flying in. But that’s the point. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to move forward and take that shot, and this is a shot I see that we can take to get us where we need to be.”

The Digital Gateway is expected to transform the predominantly agricultural and residential Pageland Lane into a technology corridor for the development of data centers that store large amounts of digital information and allow it to be shared. The rezoning will allow building heights to be up to 105 feet, which is nearly equivalent to a 10-story building.

A roadway off of Pageland Lane in Prince William County. (Nathaniel Cline)

The planned area covers 194 parcels on 2,139 acres and is adjacent to Conway Robinson State Forest and the Manassas National Battlefield Park. A 3.5-mile stretch of Pageland Lane is expected to expand from two lanes to four. 

Last summer, the board agreed to begin considering an amendment to its comprehensive plan, a document state law requires all localities to adopt, that would allow data centers to be sited in the Pageland Lane area. Comprehensive plans serve as a development guide for communities, but only provide recommendations for local governments and are not binding.

“Don’t get confused by the flowery language by thinking that something is truly here being accomplished, because again, it has no teeth to it,” said Republican Supervisor Yesli Vega. 

Republican Supervisor Jeanine Lawson and Vega both voted against the motion after expressing concern with the board’s intentions and the plan’s impact on the county.

Prince William could steal Loudoun’s title of Data Center Alley. But land use battles are raging.

“This is absolutely bold, as a couple of my colleagues have said,” Lawson said. “It’s a bold pillage of environmentally sensitive land, bold corruption of our national park and its view of our tourism industry. It’s a bold dismissal of public concern and bold favoritism to big tech and a small group of landowners that will forever change the landscape of Prince William County.”

While proponents of the Digital Gateway project have pointed to increasing demand for data centers, critics have argued that Prince William already has a designated area for data center development, known as a data center opportunity overlay district.

Data centers cover 17.5 million square feet of land in the county, according to a May 27 letter from the county’s Office of Executive Management to the board.  

Opponents have said the plan will change the area’s rural character, negatively impact the Manassas National Battlefield and the Occoquan Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to county residents, and strain the existing power grid. Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, will need to construct additional power lines to supply the electricity needed for new data center development. The cost of the transmission lines would be supported by all utility customers.

Nevertheless, supporters of the plan say the proposal will lower tax rates, improve schools and generate jobs and millions in tax revenue. Residents along Pageland Lane initiated the proposal for the comprehensive plan amendment, which was later expanded by the board.

Wheeler said even if people believe the project is in a sensitive area, they should come together to consider it and other projects that could benefit the county’s future. 

“Why is everything just about ‘no’?” Wheeler said. “We are a county that is growing, (and) we need to move forward. And we need to do it together.”

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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.