Driving down Pageland Lane west of Manassas, all that can be seen from a car window are rolling hills, forests, old farmhouses and a row of towering transmission lines. It’s an area that has remained largely untouched by new development – except for the electrical lines – even as the surrounding area has rapidly shifted.
But if some landowners on Pageland Lane get their way, that could change.
A dozen residents who live on the road, many of whom have been there for decades, are asking the county to redesignate their collective 792 acres of agricultural land to allow for up to 21 million square feet of new data centers. On May 19, they filed an application requesting that the board of county supervisors change their properties’ land-use designation from agricultural to “tech/flex” to allow for such development. They’re calling their plan the “PWC Digital Gateway.”
All the included properties are along a 3-mile stretch of Pageland Lane between Va. 29 and Sudley Road within the county’s “rural crescent,” an area created in 1998 to put the brakes on suburban sprawl. The rural crescent contains about 53% of the county’s total landmass and generally limits development to single-family homes on 10-acre lots or larger. Some other uses are allowed by-right, but not industrial facilities, such as data centers.
The properties at issue are non-contiguous, separated into three areas. One consists of 179 acres and borders Conway Robinson State Forest and the Heritage Hunt community. Another consists of 148 acres bordering Manassas National Battlefield Park. The third lies about 2 miles west and consists of 466 acres bordering Sudley Road and Pageland Lane.
All the parcels are located near a major Dominion Energy transmission line corridor built in 2008 that traverses several of the properties. The applicants claim no new transmission lines will be required to power future data centers along Pageland Lane because of the existing transmission lines. But electrical substations may be needed onsite to power the data centers, according to the application.
The electricity needs for any future data centers developed in the area have not yet been analyzed by the county or Dominion Energy.
Page Snyder and Mary Ann Ghadban, the landowners leading the charge to allow data centers on the properties, say they believe the county should approve their comprehensive plan change because of its proximity to the transmission line corridor and data centers already approved at Gainesville Crossing on Pageland Lane, less than two miles away.
“The area’s just totally not rural because of the transmission lines. Everyone recognizes that this is not what it was, and it needs to change,” Ghadban said. “... It’s the right place for data centers.”
Ghadban is a land broker and commercial real estate consultant.
Additional rezonings and special use permits will need to be approved by the county board for the project to move forward, neither of which have yet been filed. The application will also need to be reviewed by the Prince William County Planning Commission before it heads to the supervisors for approval. No timelines for those reviews or required public hearings have yet been set.
Some vacant land suitable for data center development in Prince William is now selling for nearly $1 million per acre driven almost entirely by increased demand for data centers in the area.
Ghadban said she believes the landowners on Pageland Lane will receive “significantly less” than the $1 million an acre price tag seen elsewhere in the county if the application is approved because the subsequent data center developers will need to pay for public water and sewer infrastructure to support the buildings.
The landowners are proposing to create a $20 million nonprofit foundation as a condition of the project’s approval that would directly fund county initiatives. The foundation would likely be the first of its kind in Prince William created as a condition of a land-use application. It is unclear at this point exactly how the funds would be administered or whether the foundation would be a part of a proffer agreement.
Data center debate
The Pageland Lane landowners estimate their 792 acres could accommodate between 11.8 and 20.7 million square feet of data center space at full buildout, which would more than double the existing data center square footage in the county.
Right now, there are about 5 million square feet of data centers in Prince William County and another 3 million square feet of data centers currently under construction, according to Christina Winn, Prince William County’s economic development director.
This application comes amid a rush of new data center activity within the western part of the county and just a few weeks after the supervisors voted in May to hire a contractor study a possible expansion the county’s existing “Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District,” designating areas where data centers can be developed by right.
Prince William County implemented its nearly 10,000-acre data center overlay district in 2016 to direct data centers to areas with adequate electrical supply to support data center power needs. Since then, the amount of space left within the district considered suitable for new data centers has been mostly accounted for, according to county officials.
“Of the approximately 8,700 acres of land within the Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District in spring 2021, there are approximately 600 to 1,100 acres that the Department of Economic Development would consider market viable at this time,” Winn said in a June 2 email.
Approving more data centers has been controversial. Republican supervisors and local conservation groups are staunchly opposed to allowing any data centers within the county’s rural crescent, raising concerns about data centers’ impact on the environment, the nearby state and national parks and potential impacts to the existing character of the rural area.
The “digital gateway” proposal is in Supervisor Pete Candland’s Gainesville District, and within a mile of his home. Candland (R) has said he will fight any data center proposal in the rural crescent “tooth and nail.”
Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, said in March that any plans for data centers adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park would have “detrimental impacts to federally owned parkland.”
“Data centers are notoriously loud, have high energy demands, and replace wildlife habitat with impervious surfaces. Such facilities are more appropriate for an industrial area than a rural community bordering a national park,” Hosen said. “... Prince William is fortunate to have not one but two national parks. They are nationally significant. We need to help protect them.”
Democratic supervisors have pointed to the tax revenue data centers provide, and the potential for increased commercial revenues to offset the county’s real estate tax rate. Tax revenue generated by data centers has grown exponentially in the last decade in the county.
In 2020, data centers generated $64 million in local tax revenues, up from $6 million in 2012.
Supervisor Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, said in a June 14 interview that adding more data centers, including the proposed data centers on Pageland Lane, would be “an opportunity to lower the residential tax base.”
“The revenue that can come in from this opportunity will definitely lighten the burden on our residents and our constituents,” Angry said.
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com