Prince William Co. planning officials recommend data center proposal

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The first Battle of Pageland Lane ended in favor of landowners, but both sides will regroup before the final decisive battle.

Early Thursday morning, the Prince William County Planning Commission voted 4-3-1 to recommend approval of the first application for the controversial PW Digital Gateway.

Commissioners Cynthia Moses-Nedd (Woodbridge), Qwendolyn Brown (Neabsco), Juan McPhail (Potomac) and Patty Kuntz (At-Large) voted in favor of the project. Commissioners Joseph Fontanella Jr. (Coles), Richard Berry (Gainesville) and Tom Gordy (Brentsville) opposed it.

Commissioner Robert Perry Jr. (Occoquan) abstained from the vote.

The vote came after a nearly seven-hour marathon public hearing, easily among the longest in county history. It started at 10 p.m. Wednesday and didn’t wrap up until 4:34 a.m. Thursday. The commission did not cast a vote until after 5 a.m.

The raucous Wednesday/Thursday hearing was on the request from dozens of landowners to designate 2,139 acres in Western Prince William County for data centers. Specifically, it was to change the land in the Comprehensive Plan currently designated as agricultural/estate and environmental resource to technology/flex, parks and open space, county registered historic site and environmental resource overlay.

Supporters ended the night with an edge in speakers with 84 in favor compared to 67 opponents.

Of those in favor, at least 57 were landowners who are part of the PW Digital Gateway application, and five were representing companies associated with the project.

More than 220 people signed up to speak, but 85 dropped off before their slot as the hearing stretched well into the morning. By 2:30 a.m., only a small but dedicated core of supporters and opponents remained to watch the proceedings.

Berry first made a motion to only approve the northern portion of the proposal but did not get a second. He then made a motion to recommend denial and still did not get a second.

Brown then made the motion to recommend approval of the application. The motion included recommendations for unspecified noise and environmental regulations to be added to the proposal.

Brown said the project “presents an opportunity to transform Prince William County’s future in a profound way.”

Gordy and Fontanella made an unsuccessful bid to table the proposal for county staff to get more information. “We need more time to get this right,” Gordy said.

The proposed change would target 1,321 acres as technology/flex, 807 acres as parks and open space, 439.8 acres as environmental resource protection overlay and 9.6 acres as county historic registered site.

The project, which proposes 27.6 million square feet of data centers along Pageland Lane, has quickly become the most controversial and contentious local land-use proposal in decades. Opponents and proponents have launched personal attacks against each other, and it has spawned recall efforts against Gainesville Supervisor Pete Candland and Board Chair Ann Wheeler and a federal lawsuit against Candland.

County planner David McGettigan said it was important to restrict development to data centers because they have less employees and generate less traffic.

“We don’t want rezonings for any industrial use. We want to limit it to data centers,” he said. “There’s less demand on infrastructure from data centers.”

The original application was submitted last summer by landowners along Pageland Lane who wanted to change the land designation on about 800 acres for the project. The Board of County Supervisors later expanded the request to cover 2,100 acres.

Supporters say the project will provide a huge economic boon to the county in an area that’s no longer rural.

Opponents say such large developments would decimate the character of the county’s rural area; they have raised concerns about the availability of power, effects on water quality and the potential that the buildings could quickly become obsolete as technology continues to improve.

The staff report says if the Comprehensive Plan amendment is approved, the potential data center usage would range from 13.2 million to 27 million square feet and support 1,471 to 5,048 jobs.

The low end is more in line with rezoning requests filed by Compass Datacenters and QTS Realty Trust Inc. rather than the 27.6 million square feet touted by the proposal’s supporters. The combined Compass and QTS projects cover 1,636 acres and 18.42 million square feet.

The hearing was only for the Comprehensive Plan amendment, not the two rezonings. However, if the Comprehensive Plan update is approved, it will weigh heavily in favor of the rezonings.

“It’s only a guide. It’s not regulatory in nature,” McGettigan said. “When the planning office reviews a rezoning application, we’re going to look at consistency with the Comprehensive Plan.”

Those on both sides of the project have shown up to nearly every Board of County Supervisors and Planning Commission meeting for the past year to plead their case. Everyone was out in full force Wednesday, with 88 people in line to sign-up for the hearing when registration opened at 5:30 p.m.

Opponents held a rally and press conference outside the building before the meeting started, with similar talking points that have been raised over the past 12 months.

Gordy said the proposal might not be necessary because land exists in currently targeted areas.

“What we have heard is the data center market remains extremely strong in Northern Virginia,” said Deputy Planning Director Meika Daus. “We’ve not heard that there is a cooling of the data center market.”

Gordy said the county needs an estimate of how much it will cost the county to support the project through infrastructure upgrades.

“The county’s going to bear some of that burden, and the main rationale for supporting this is the benefit financially to the county, but we haven’t accounted for cost,” he said.

County staff were criticized for bringing the project forward before completing a study of the noise ordinance, impact on the watershed, cost of associated infrastructure and review of the existing Data Center Opportunity Zone overlay district.

Fontanella Jr. was concerned that county staff didn’t have concrete answers to some of the panel’s questions.

“I’m hearing a lot of ‘to be determined’ or ‘we’re studying that,’ and it sort of begs the question of whether we’re ready for prime time without solid answers,” he said. “I would like to have a much better, deeper understanding of the impacts on not just the Occoquan Reservoir but our drinking sources that include the Potomac River.”

McGettigan presented the staff report to the commission. Those in the atrium frequently criticized his hesitation on answers and called him a “dummy” and “idiot.”

As McGettigan said the recommendation of staff was for approval, the atrium erupted in a chorus of boos.

No one presented on behalf of the applicants, as it was billed as a county-initiated project, although dozens of applicants spoke at the hearing. Representatives of the companies planning construction also provided input.

Those in the atrium cheered when commissioners or speakers asked questions or made statements they agreed with and jeered during speakers or staff answers they did not support. At one point, Potomac District Commissioner Juan McPhail, who was serving as chair for the meeting, told those in the atrium to cut down on their outbursts and was greeted with yells of “no.”

Bruce Ridgeway, an applicant, was booed from the atrium. He responded, “Boo to you out there … Where were you guys at when I was fighting for my home eight years ago? Don’t tell me what I can do to my home now.”

As Ridgeway left the board chambers and entered the atrium, which was mostly full of opponents, he shouted “woo” and held up a pro data center sign before heading home.

Supporters claimed those in opposition primarily lived in Heritage Hunt and didn’t support progressive change and accused them of intimidation.

Rhonda Reese said opponents should not be dismissed because their concerns are valid.

“How dare you guys assume that all of us that are against this are against change?” she said. “You don’t know me”

Two men almost came to blows in the atrium after one supporter was upset because he said opponents had parked outside Candland’s house to “intimidate” him. He was confronted when he came into the atrium, but security and police stepped in to separate the men.

Elena Schlossberg said the supporters only favored the project because they were selling their land.

“If you remove the millions of dollars that each of these applicants are making, they would be with me,” she said.

Ali Iman, one of the applicants, said the proposal is “the most studied single project in the history of Prince William County.”

“For over a year now we have been consistently presenting facts about how the PW Digital Gateway is the greatest economic development in Prince William County’s history,” he said.

Melanie Williams, one of the applicants, said Pageland Lane is “a very, very small piece” of the county’s rural area and has been “ completely destroyed by huge power lines.”

“Nobody wants to leave their property, trust me,” she said. “But we feel like there’s no alternative.”

At about 3:20 a.m., Mary Ann Ghadban, one of the lead applicants, called out county Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, who has been adamantly opposed to the project. She said Lawson voted in favor of the nearby Gainesville Crossing data center that started Pageland landowners down the path toward the PW Digital Gateway.

Lawson, who was attending the meeting, spoke during the public hearing to counter Ghadban’s point. She did vote in favor of the project, but noted that the data center was not in the rural area, only outside of the overlay district.

“It is not and never was in the rural area,” she said. “They have a hard time forgetting that. We have borders for a reason. The rural crescent is nearby, I will give her that.”

The proposal next heads to the Board of County Supervisors. No date has been scheduled, but officials are planning for an October hearing and vote.

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