Citing concerns about noise, huge buildings visible from their homes and years of destructive blasting from construction, about 100 people protested along Linton Hall Road in Bristow Saturday to urge the Prince William Board of Supervisors to put the brakes on “runaway” data center development that they say is destroying their neighborhoods.
“These data centers are not being built here. We will chain ourselves to the trees if we have to,” said Donna Gallant, a resident of Amberleigh Station, which could soon be surrounded by between 18 and 22 new data centers if the county supervisors approve the proposed “Devlin Technology Park” at their upcoming meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
Gallant was collecting signatures on a petition to recall county Board Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At Large, from people pushing baby strollers and accompanied by kids still in their soccer uniforms from Saturday morning games.
Those opposed to the Bristow data centers – as well as the much larger and also controversial “Prince William Digital Gateway,” proposed near the Manassas National Battlefield Park – have launched efforts to recall both Wheeler and Supervisor Pete Candland.
The data centers are “not going up. All these people are not going to let this happen,” said Brian Fasing, gesturing to the dozens of residents gathered for the protest, many holding homemade signs.
Fasing said he has lived in Amberleigh Station for 28 years and has never protested anything before. He said he came out Saturday, Sept. 10 with his homemade sign, declaring: “NO DATA CENTERS” because “this is a battle that needs to be won.”
“I don’t want to look at an 80-foot-tall building right behind my house,” he said, noting the buildings will rise above the tree line. “The viewshed is going to be horrible.”
Devlin Technology Park: Part of 700-acre swath proposed for new data centers
Whether Amberleigh Station’s 113 homes and roughly 800 residents will eventually be surrounded by data centers will be decided this Tuesday, Sept. 13, when the Prince William Board of County Supervisors is slated to vote on the Devlin Technology Park, a plan to allow seven to 11 new data centers on 269 vacant acres stretching from Linton Hall and Devlin roads to the back of Chris Yung Elementary School.
If approved, the project would allow a maximum of 4.25 million square feet of data center space and would become part of one of the largest data center corridors in Prince William County. That’s because the 269 acres at issue in the Devlin Technology Park proposal – technically a “comprehensive plan amendment” and a rezoning – is the last piece of an about 700-acre site that would be completely rezoned for data centers if the plan is approved.
The total acreage stretches roughly from Gainesville High School to Chris Yung Elementary School and the back of the shopping center near Devlin and Linton Hall Roads.
The area was once part of the ill-fated Stonehaven residential development, a controversial plan that would have allowed more than 1,000 homes and provided a donated site for Gainesville High School. But the project fell through in 2015 after intense opposition to more homes due to already overcrowded schools. In 2017, the Prince William County school division purchased about 84 acres in the area for Gainesville High School, which opened last fall.
After Stonehaven failed, owners and developer Stanley Martin applied for a smaller residential project of 516 homes, once referred to as “Stonehaven-lite,” which the supervisors approved in March 2020.
But things changed in September 2021, when supervisors agreed to rezone 109 acres of the nearby “Hunter property” for data centers. In February 2022, Stanley Martin abandoned its residential project and asked that its 270 acres also be rezoned for data centers in a project they dubbed the “Devlin Technology Park.”
The Prince William County Planning Commission voted 5-1 on July 27 to recommend that the supervisors approve the CPA and rezoning. The most recent version of the plan, released last week by the Prince William County Planning Department, would allow for seven to 11 data centers ranging from 95 to 120 feet in height, a measure that includes 15 feet for rooftop equipment such as air conditioning units.
The taller data centers – those at 105 feet (or 120 feet with rooftop equipment) – would have to be at least 700 feet from a neighboring property line. But the shorter, 80-foot data centers – or 95 feet with rooftop equipment – need only a 100-foot setback from neighboring properties.
None of the data centers would be positioned directly behind Chris Yung Elementary School, but there could be either an electrical substation or a data center within 100 feet of the side of the school, according to the plan. In all, the Devlin Technology Park calls for three electrical substations that would each be about 10 acres.
The county’s planning office is recommending that the supervisors approve the Devlin Technology Park despite what they call “weaknesses” in the plan. Those weaknesses include that the new industrial zone would abut a surrounding residential area: Amberleigh Station.
But in the staff report, Deputy County Executive and acting-Planning Director Rebecca Horner notes that the plan addresses that weakness and lessens the impact on nearby homes by requiring a larger setback for the taller data centers and noise rules that are somewhat stricter than the existing county noise ordinance. The developer has agreed that the data centers will remain beneath the nighttime residential noise limit of 55 decibels, including whatever noise is emitted from their air conditioning units.
The county's current noise ordinance -- which was adopted in 1989, before data center noise was an issue -- exempts any kind of air conditioning noise from nighttime noise limits. That's among the problems facing residents in the Great Oak neighborhood in Manassas, who are currently battling noise from four Amazon data centers next to their subdivision.
During the July 27 planning commission meeting, Horner acknowledged the 95-foot data centers would still be visible from Amberleigh Station, according to a “balloon test” conducted by Stanley Martin. The balloon was “visible in some locations, and from Amberleigh Station in particular,” Horner said, adding: “… [They] won’t be towering over the neighborhood, but [they] will be visible in some areas.”
Horner added that the builders could “paint the buildings in colors that will blend into the skyline” in an effort to make the data centers less noticeable.
HOA president: ‘Wake up, Prince William County!’
But the Devlin Technology Park is only part of what’s angering Bristow residents. Via a Freedom of Information Act request, the residents recently learned that another 11 data centers are being planned for the “Hunter property,” which was rezoned for data centers in 2021. A maximum of 4.7 million square feet of data centers is now allowed there by right – meaning no additional approval is needed from the county supervisors.
According to those who have seen the plans, the 11 data centers would be 80 feet tall with a minimum set back of only 100 feet from nearby residential property lines.
“Wake up, Prince William County, before our way of life is snuffed out by billionaires, big tech and tainted politicians!” urged Dr. Steven Pleickhardt, a Bristow dentist and president of the Amberleigh Station homeowners’ association, during the Sept. 10 protest.
Pleickhardt, who filed the FOIA request for the data center site plans, said the neighborhood was “misled” about the intensity of development planned for the area and did not realize there could be as many as 11 individual data center buildings erected around the back of their subdivision. If Devlin Technology Park is approved, it would add another seven to 11, totaling 18 to 22.
That number doesn’t include an existing data center behind Gainesville High School and Gainesville Middle School, or a Google data center being built on acres beside the high school by an LLC dubbed “Mango Farms.”
“Our home values are now beginning to erode because of the presence of data centers and yet our taxes are increasing. What is wrong with that scenario?” Pleickhardt asked. “Where is our liberty and enjoyment of our homes?”
In an interview before the protest, Pleickhardt said residents were looking into legal options regarding the Hunter property rezoning.
“We’re going to reopen that,” he added. “We’re going to stand up as a community and fight back. No one is advocating for us. We have to do it all ourselves.”
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors will hear the Devlin Technology Park rezoning and comprehensive plan amendment on Tuesday, Sept. 13 at their 7:30 p.m. meeting at the James J. McCoart Administration Building at 1 County Court Complex in Woodbridge.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com