Northern Virginia lawmakers’ bills target local data centers

For years, Loudoun County, Virginia, has been known as the world’s “data center capital.” However, not everyone is happy that Prince William County has recently become a destination for future data centers.

One of the most controversial projects is Prince William’s Digital Gateway data center complex. In November, the Board of County Supervisors voted 5-2 along party lines to amend the county’s Comprehensive Plan to include the project, which would be built near the Manassas Battlefield.

A group of Gainesville residents quickly filed lawsuits asking a judge to overturn the approval.

Now, two Northern Virginia lawmakers have introduced bills in Richmond aimed at stopping, or at least slowing down, the project.

A North Carolina energy company is planning a solar farm in northwestern Prince William County off U.S. Route 15. (Courtesy InsideNova)

“I have two bills that are meant to deal with the data centers that are proposed for the Digital Gateway project, that would be build right next to the Manassas National Battlefield Park to the east, and Conway Robinson State Forest in Gainesville to the west,” said Del. Danica Roem, a Democrat from Manassas. “I am adamantly opposed to the data centers.”

Changing agricultural zoning to technology zoning has raised concern about potential impacts on water quality, and other environmental issues.

“If the project moves forward, I believe we need to have the most stringent environmental restrictions on this as possible, and I do not want to see above-ground transmission lines associated with this project,” said Roem.

Roem’s HB 1974 bill would require electrical transmission lines be built as a public interest, since the data center would be adjacent to the Manassas Battlefield and state forest. While Roem’s HB 1986 legislation would require stormwater management techniques for the data center, given its proximity to the battlefield and forest.

In Joint Resolution 240, Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat from Fairfax, is asking the state’s Department of Energy to study the impacts of data center development on Virginia’s environment, economy, energy resources, and ability to meet carbon-reduction goals.

Petersen and Roem have questioned whether impacts from data centers are worth the tax revenue and other financial benefits of the large structures.

“Yeah, they bring money in the short term up front, then they depreciate over time, and you don’t get as large a tax return over the years as you get from the initial investment,” said Roem.

Some data centers have been built near established neighborhoods in Prince William County, prompting complaints about noise from residents.

“If data centers are to exist anywhere in western Prince William County, they should be in Innovation Park,” said Roem. “That’s a corridor, right along the Prince William County Parkway, that’s been designed as a technology hub, and we have existing infrastructure there to support data centers going up.”

Roem does not believe the financial benefits of a data center outweigh the potential negatives in the most rural portions of the county.

“At what point do we look at the natural environment of western Prince William County, and we say it’s for sale to whoever’s the highest bidder,” said Roem. “We’re constantly putting money in front of environmental stewardship, protecting natural habitat for wildlife, protecting our water in Occoquan Reservoir area.”

In December, the Board of County Supervisors’ approval of the long-range plan that eliminates prior “rural crescent” protections in the far-western portion of the county, including Gainesville and Brentsville will undoubtedly change the look and feel of the area.

“Every time I see the woods being torn down from other people call progress, it makes me wonder, why is this considered progress for us to destroy the environment?” said Roem. “Just because we want to make money.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up