Ken Burns pens letter opposing western Prince William data centers on ‘hallowed ground’

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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says the proposal for data centers along Pageland Lane could have a “devastating impact” on the Manassas National Battlefield.

Meanwhile, proponents of the proposal say the land will eventually be developed anyway and data centers are the most beneficial and least impactful option.

Burns sent a letter to the Prince William County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 5 opposing the PW Digital Gateway.

“I fear the devastating impact the development of up to 2,133 acres of data centers will have on this hallowed ground,” Burns wrote. “I implore you to seek more appropriate options for this planned development.”

Dozens of landowners along Pageland Lane have submitted requests to change the land in the county’s Comprehensive Plan from agricultural zoning to technology zoning.

The requests would support more than 27.6 million square feet of data centers, which would be nearly as much data center space as is currently in use or under construction in neighboring Loudoun County, the world’s largest concentration of such facilities.

A Comprehensive Plan amendment does not rezone properties. It only changes what the county says it hopes for future use of the land. It does not bind the county, the board or the landowners to any guaranteed future uses. The properties would still require zoning approval to allow data centers.

Burns’ 1990 documentary miniseries “The Civil War” is one of the most widely-watched programs to ever air on PBS. The series won numerous awards and accolades and was hailed as a groundbreaking work at the time.

Burns’ letter comes after the former superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park sent a letter to the county saying the park “strongly opposes” the proposal, saying it “is certain to have a substantial negative impact on historic resources both within and outside of the park that are significant to the battle.”

“The warning of the Superintendent should not be taken lightly,” Burns wrote. “As a student and chronicler of American history for more than 40 years, I can attest to how fragile our precious heritage is and how susceptible it can be to the ravages of ‘progress.’”

The area under consideration is the entirety of Pageland Lane between U.S. 29 and Sudley Road.

The battlefield park said the area is significant to the Second Battle of Bull Run, fought from Aug. 28, 1862, to Aug. 30, 1862. Nearly 3,000 soldiers died in the battle, which was a Confederate victory and precipitated the South’s failed invasion of Maryland the following month.

Maps of the battle drawn at the time show troop movements east of Pageland Lane and southeast of Little Bull Run, which runs through a portion of parcels in the application.

This isn’t the first time Burns has weighed in on a potential development in Prince William County. In 1994, he opposed Disney’s plan for a theme park near Haymarket saying it would “distract visitors from the real places of history.”

Proponents of the data center proposal amplified criticism of Burns’ documentary series in a Monday response to his letter, calling the correspondence Burns’ “latest gift to the Confederacy.” His series has been criticized for downplaying the role of slavery as a cause for the war.

The landowners criticized Burns for not engaging with Pageland residents before coming out against the proposal and said his letter relies on information from “a few special interest groups.”

“Ken Burns has done much to tell the stories we share as Americans, both the painful and the powerful parts, and his opinion is valuable,” the applicants said. “However, he is one man speaking on an issue from hundreds of miles away and without taking the time to fully research all the issues.”

The applicants also pointed out that development has occurred around many other significant Civil War battlefields, including Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa.

The applicants said “many question the need to celebrate the Confederacy or its victories on the battlefield” or the South’s “epic quest to preserve its abhorrent institution.”

“Our nation’s history is important to us all – one we need to remember lest we find ourselves repeating it,” they said. “However, it is also wrong for the first majority-minority community in Virginia to insist that the people of color, who largely live in the eastern end of the county, continue to carry a heavier than necessary tax burden, send their children to overcrowded and underfunded schools, and seek employment at jobs with intolerable commutes so that people in the western part of the county don’t have to endure a data center.”

The county has not scheduled a public hearing on the Pageland application.

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