Digital Gateway data center opposition escalates in Prince William County

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Opponents of the PW Digital Gateway remain steadfast in their fight against the sprawling data center proposal.

A cadre of activists gathered outside Bull Run Middle School in Manassas on Tuesday to protest an open house held by Texas-based Compass Datacenters, one of the Digital Gateway’s major developers.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved general plans for the 2,139-acre data center development along Pageland Lane in November. But because the individual projects must receive rezoning approvals from the county before any construction can begin, opponents hope there is still time to stop it from moving forward.

“Just because they passed the Comprehensive Plan amendment doesn’t mean this is a done deal,” said Bill Wright, a Heritage Hunt resident.

While the Compass open house was intended to provide citizens with detailed information about the project, several attendees arrived to express their disapproval of the application.

“Tonight’s event hosted by Compass Datacenters is not about opportunity or community service or partnership. It’s not even about additional financial resources — unless those are the enormous profits of the richest corporate entities ever in the history of mankind,” said Kath Kulick, vice chair of the HOA Roundtable of Northern Virginia.

The Board of Supervisors’ 5-2 vote along party lines to amend the county’s Comprehensive Plan in November allowed the project to move forward and signaled its likely final approval.

The vote came after a more than nine-hour public hearing and a roughly 14-hour meeting, during which 254 people signed up to speak. Public opinion was almost evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the project.

But opponents who spoke at the hearing, many from the Heritage Hunt community in Gainesville adjacent to the data center complex, have continued to attend county meetings and other events, urging local and state elected officials to halt the project.

What’s next?

The board’s decision modifies the land designations in the Comprehensive Plan from agricultural/estate and environmental resource to technology/flex, parks and open space, county-registered historic site and environmental resource overlay.

The Comprehensive Plan amendment establishes guidelines for the overall development of the Gateway project but does not address specific construction plans.

The proposal encompassing the QTS and Compass data centers is still undergoing staff review, in which county planners go back and forth with the applicants over their plan.

The proposal specifies that the data center and electric substations will be located outside of the data center opportunity overlay district, which means a special-use permit will also be required. But Compass has requested the county waive this requirement, which Wright argues may be grounds for the county to object to the proposal due to a lack of transparency.

“[The developers] don’t want to tell you what they’re going to do because it would be objectionable. So they’re trying to get the waiver first and then they say, ‘Oh, well now since it’s waived, here, we’re gonna do all this stuff.’ So this is why we’re protesting. I don’t trust those guys as far as I can throw a piano,” Wright said.

While the waiver has been submitted, staff acknowledged the proposal “lacks detailed layout of the site” and “is too general and does not provide sufficient details.”

Eventually, the proposal will go to the county’s Planning Commission, but as of yet no date is set for it to do so.

“We had our second submission and we met with the applicants to go over our comments,” County Planning Manager Alex Vanegas said. “We’re waiting for the applicants to submit their third submission, which addresses our comments from the second round.”

‘The midst of an industrial jungle’

Many of the same concerns citizens addressed at the November public hearing were echoed by nearby residents at Tuesday’s open house.

Bobbie Kelly, who lives on Fieldstone Way, told InsideNoVa she moved to Prince William from Centreville in 2012 but is concerned she may have to move again because of the noise, visual disturbance and pollution the complex may cause.

“I have heart issues. I have hearing issues. So it’s going to affect me,” Kelly said. “They’re putting all this potentially hazardous stuff right across the street.”

Despite a tree buffer, Kelly says she can still see the top of the data centers owned by one of the other major data center developers, QTS, from her property.

“QTS keep claiming that the trees are going to buffer, and they’re not because they put the cooling equipment on top of the buildings. So unless the trees are 150 feet high, they’re not going to buffer anything,” Kelly said.

Gainesville resident Kara Klass, a mother of two, also voiced her concerns about the Digital Gateway development near her home. She shares Kelly’s anxiety about pollution from the generators but also noted the potential impact on the area’s wetlands, wildlife and historic resources.

“But here’s the truth. The rest of us, the little guys, we’re going to be left living in the midst of an industrial jungle of concrete buildings completely surrounded right here in what was formerly known as the rural crescent,” Klass told a group of protesters outside Bull Run Middle School Tuesday. “And it will inevitably be abandoned due to technological obsolescence. That’s going to be left there for Big Tech companies … and we will be left with a permanent physical scar on this community.”

Developer’s take

Chris Curtis, senior vice president of acquisitions and development for Compass, argued many of the statements made by opponents “may not be accurate” and that some of the concerns shared by citizens are due to misinformation about the project.

“I think there’s been a lot of fear of the unknown or not knowing what it’s going to be. And so that’s really the purpose tonight, is to allow the community to come in, see it, touch it, feel it, and understand, you know, the positive benefits to the community and all the things we’re doing,” Curtis told InsideNoVa.

Curtis addressed some of these concerns at Tuesday’s open house, noting that the nearest building would be 1,600 feet from the closest residence.

“And we’ve proven through a view shed analysis that you really won’t see these buildings from any of those viewpoints,” he said.

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