Prince William County has delayed the next public hearing on the proposed PW Digital Gateway data center complex.
The Board of County Supervisors was scheduled to review a Comprehensive Plan amendment for the proposal at its Oct. 11 meeting, but board Chair Ann Wheeler has temporarily pulled the hearing.
Wheeler said the delay was to clear up confusion about the amendment process, the applicants and the properties included in the proposal.
She said the hearing has been pushed “a few weeks,” but no firm date has been decided. She said it would be rescheduled before the end of the year.
The postponement came the day after the Planning Commission briefly reopened its debate of the project but ultimately stuck with its recommendation for approval.
During its meeting Wednesday night, the panel discussed a perceived lack of transparency around the 5 a.m. vote on Sept. 15 — a vote to recommend approval that included several last-minute changes.
Following a marathon public hearing, the commission voted 4-3-1 to recommend approval of a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would serve as a guideline for the overall development.
The project, which proposes 27.6 million square feet of data centers across 2,100 acres 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.
The vote to recommend approval included several changes outlined in a Sept. 9 letter to the Planning Commission from representatives of Compass Datacenters and QTS Realty Trust Inc., the companies planning to develop the area.
The letter included calls for removing a stretch of protected wildlife corridor, reducing an open space area and loosening proposed stormwater regulations.
The letter was not discussed during the staff presentation to the Planning Commission, and several commissioners said they had not seen it before the vote. Furthermore, opponents of the project said the changes weren’t publicly available until after the meeting.
Coles Commissioner Joseph Fontanella Jr. opened discussion Wednesday by saying the panel had the option to reconsider its original motion, amend it or rescind the recommendation.
He said he’s “more a believer of people making mistakes than having a conspiracy theory.”
“That letter, I think, got lost in people’s emails,” Fontanella said.
Commissioners said they each received more than 1,000 emails prior to the meeting about the project.
“In my view, if it was to be considered in the meeting, it should have come from the planning staff,” he said. “I’m just putting this out on the table here because I think we have a problem to address.”
Neabsco Commissioner Qwendolyn Brown, who made the motion to recommend approval and include the changes requested in the letter, said, “This letter was not some clandestine document.”
Brown has been the target of criticism online and at Wednesday’s public comment for her motion.
“This letter was not just pulled out of our hat like a rabbit,” she said. “There’s some misinformation that this letter was a surprise and it was not.”
Interim Planning Director Rebecca Horner, who was out of the office when the letter came in and the Planning Commission voted, said the only staff copied on the email were her and planner Alex Vanegas.
Horner said staff likely would not have emphasized it to the Planning Commission because it was not from an applicant specifically tied to the Comprehensive Plan amendment.
“We would consider this a comment letter just like any other comment letter we receive from the public,” she said. “It would not be a typical process for us to forward it to anybody because we don’t do that with other comment letters.”
Brentsville Commissioner Tom Gordy said that if the changes to the plan requested were to be considered, county staff should have been given the opportunity to review them and provide input.
“It completely changed the [application],” he said. “Unfortunately we’re at a time in our culture where confidence in our institutions is at an all-time low, and I don’t think we did ourselves any favors.”
Gainesville Commissioner Richard Berry said he met with landowners two days prior to the vote, and they made no mention of the letter, which he called “very troubling.”
Horner said although the Planning Commission recommendation incorporated the letter, the staff report prepared for the Board of County Supervisors might not agree with all the proposals.
No action was taken to change the recommendation adopted on Sept. 15.