A new report estimates that Prince William County could run out of space to meet demand for the data center industry by 2035.
The report by New York-based Camoin Associates about land needs for targeted economic development industries was recently released by the county. The county’s target industries are advanced manufacturing, federal government contracting, health care, information communications technology, life sciences and logistics.
The report was commissioned to review how land needs are compatible with current zoning and projected growth over the next 20 years.
The most contentious part of the document centers around data centers, which have quickly become one of the biggest businesses in the county and are expected to outpace growth in other sectors by a wide margin.
Data centers are essentially large warehouses that hold the mechanisms needed to support computer systems, including digital storage that powers large portions of the internet.
The report is also part of the county’s ongoing review of its Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District, which is about 10,000 acres designated in 2016 to reduce regulatory hurdles for the industry within its boundaries.
The county is considering expanding the district along high-transmission power lines and adopting any necessary changes to construction standards, the Comprehensive Plan, the zoning ordinance and any other effects from data centers.
The data center industry has been growing exponentially in Northern Virginia, with much of that growth coming to Prince William.
Since 2002, the industry has constructed 5.3 million square feet in Prince William County. Looking at the growth trends, 4.1 million square feet was added between 2017 and 2021, compared to just 678,000 square feet from 2012 to 2017.
Of the county’s 5.3 million square feet of data centers, 2 million to 3 million square feet is under construction, the report says. Another 8 million to 10 million square feet is “in the development pipeline,” the report says.
Once all that construction finishes, Prince William County will be at more than 15 million square feet and knocking on the door of Loudoun County, which leads the global market with 26 million square feet of data centers and another 4 million in development.
The report notes that Loudoun County supervisors are considering designating an area near Dulles International Airport for data center development, which could support 56 million square feet near the Prince William County border. However, supervisors have been hesitant to approve such a proposal.
Based on a variety of projections, the report estimates that demand for the data center industry in Prince William will exceed current buildout capacity under existing zoning by 2029 on the high end and 2034 on the low end. Factoring in future rezonings, demand will exceed capacity by 2035.
The report indicates Prince William has a buildout capacity to accommodate about 33.4 million square feet of data center development over the next 20 years under existing conditions. Prince William would be able to accommodate future data center demand in the low and mid-range scenarios, which are 8 million and 20 million square feet over the next 20 years.
In the high-range scenarios, the county would fall short for data centers and in distribution and logistics, which is projected to present the second-highest demand over targeted industries over the next 20 years. In those projections, data centers would need 48 million square feet and logistics would need 20 million, which exceeds its current capacity of roughly 15.9 million square feet.
The report bases its predictions on data center demand in Prince William using previous growth trends and certain assumptions about the parameters for development. Those assumptions are pulled directly from a May 2021 memo prepared by Christina Winn, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Department.
In her memo, writing about available land in the existing overlay district, Winn wrote “only 6 of these parcels are larger than 30 acres, which is generally the minimum acceptable size for data center development.” She also wrote that many “data center requests are for 100 acres of contiguous land.”
The report says 79 parcels totaling 684 acres in the data center overlay district are uncommitted for development. However, it says, only six are larger than 30 acres, collectively totaling 330 acres, and could support 5 million square feet of development.
Bill Wright, a Heritage Hunt resident who is opposing the PW Digital Gateway data center proposal on Pageland Lane, believes the source for the report’s assumptions invalidates many of its findings.
“What I see is that the county provided the answer before they asked the question,” Wright said. “They poisoned the well when they solicited [the report] by telling the contractor in advance what they think the answer is … It poisons the well on any decisions made based on this report.”
The report notes that data center projects are being placed outside the existing overlay district, and that could threaten the ability for other targeted industries to grow.
Distribution centers and manufacturing centers, two of the bigger industries in the county, are limited to industrial zoning designations. But so are data centers.
“Because of high space demand from data centers, prospective manufacturing and distribution space users are at risk of being out-bid for large sites,” the report says.
Camoin also says larger non-hazmat labs could also be competing with land with data centers.
For the Pageland Lane proposal, landowners along the road submitted a request to change the land designation of their properties in the Comprehensive Plan from agricultural zoning to technology zoning for the PW Digital Gateway. The request on 2,100 acres could pave the way for 27.6 million square feet of data centers.
Those landowners have contended there’s not enough land in the overlay district to support the industry and their proposal could satisfy future demand.
Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler said the study “goes into great detail about the county’s need for additional land that will be necessary for all our targeted industries, including data centers.”
“If we want to grow our commercial base to offset our reliance on residential real estate taxes, we need to look to our future land use needs and plan accordingly,” she said. “The study comes at a perfect time as we are in the midst of our 2040 plan and the review of our current data center overlay district. Hopefully everyone will take the time to read the report for themselves; it is very important.”