Prince William Co. supervisors kill measure that could have delayed vote on data centers

WTOP's Luke Lukert reports on the failed effort to block the development of a big data center in Prince William County.

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The Prince William Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday rejected along partisan lines a measure calling for the delay of major land-use decisions, including the contentious PW Digital Gateway plan, until a new board is sworn in next year.

The failed resolution introduced by Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson marked another unsuccessful effort by data center opponents to halt the Digital Gateway development that proposes 27.6 million square feet of data centers on 2,139 acres along Pageland Lane near Gainesville.

The Democratic majority on the Board of County Supervisors last year approved a Comprehensive Plan amendment that essentially paved the way for Digital Gateway’s approval, but specific site plans and development proposals still need the board’s OK.

Lawson, the Republican nominee for board chair, said the move was intended to “ensure public trust and accountability in local government” in the aftermath of a primary seen by many as a referendum on data center development and current at-large board Chair Ann Wheeler’s leadership.

The resolution, shot down in a 5-3 vote, would have prohibited its members from holding public hearings on any land-use proposals between the Nov. 7 General Election and Dec. 31 when the current board’s term ends.

Democrats Wheeler, Neabsco Supervisor Victor Angry, Occoquan Supervisor Kenny Boddye, Potomac Supervisor Andrea Bailey and Woodbridge Supervisor Margaret Franklin, voted against the measure. Republicans Lawson, Gainesville Supervisor Bob Weir and Coles Supervisor Yesli Vega voted in favor.

Lawson pointed to past instances of the Prince William board and neighboring jurisdictions moving to delay land-use proposals during a lame duck session as justification for the legitimacy of her efforts.

While in an interview Wheeler acknowledged that Prince William abided by the lame duck session rule in the past, recent boards since 2019 haven’t followed suit.

“I felt it was pretty simple that we need to continue governing through the end of the year,” she said. “To put a moratorium on anything didn’t seem to be a good form of governance.”

Weir, who said it’s unlikely that the Digital Gateway would even be ready for approval this year, said Lawson’s resolution was a matter of “good public policy,” noting the practice is standard procedure in Fairfax and Stafford counties.

Wheeler told members of the media she’s unsure when the Digital Gateway will go before county officials for final approval.

Vega did not speak about the matter during or before the meeting and did not immediately return a request seeking explanation of her vote.

Many of the board’s Democratic majority declined to speak at the meeting about the resolution. Bailey said she feared delaying all land-use votes could harm several projects in her district, including the future Potomac Shores Virginia Railway Express station.

“I have never agreed with a lame duck period,” Angry said in an email. “I swore to work for the people with a four-year term in mind, and I will make decisions (controversial or not) regardless of it being an election year.”

Boddye and Franklin did not immediately return messages seeking explanation for their votes.

“Amid the recent board changeovers in past years, numerous projects which included some that sparked controversy, were approved,” Wheeler said in a statement on Monday. “The current suggestion by Supervisor Lawson appears to be driven by political expediency. However, I want to assure everyone that our board remains committed to governing effectively through our term.”

Members of the public who opposed the resolution denounced it as a political ploy to seize on the recent unseating of Wheeler, a Democrat, in hopes that either Lawson or Deshundra Jefferson, the Democratic nominee for chair who also opposes the Digital Gateway, would attempt to kill the project once sworn in as chair.

Jefferson spoke alongside nearly 100 residents during Tuesday’s more than four-hour-long public comment session and called on the board to approve Lawson’s resolution.

“I respectfully request that the board listen to the voices of those who made clear they would like to see the board take discretion,” she said.

Data center opponent and former Republican Supervisor John Stirrup, unsuccessful Republican candidate for chair and Digital Gateway proponent Kenn Knarr, and other high-profile data center opponents also spoke during the lengthy public comment session. Several others who spoke opposed Lawson’s resolution and showed their support for data centers.

Lawson on Monday held a press conference at Manassas National Battlefield with former Congressman Frank Wolf and Stirrup to drum up support for her effort. The Coalition to Protect Prince William County, a group of residents opposed to data center development, held a press conference on Tuesday outside the board chambers to generate enthusiasm for Lawson’s resolution.

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