Manassas National Battlefield Park’s superintendent has issued two letters opposing a plan to allow data centers on 2,133 acres of land adjacent to the park, calling it “the single greatest threat to Manassas National Battlefield Park in nearly three decades.”
The proposal, known as the “PW Digital Gateway,” asks county supervisors to replan a rural residential and agricultural area bordering the park on Pageland Lane to allow for the construction of up to 27.6 million square feet of data centers. The landowners have filed a comprehensive plan amendment to accomplish that goal, although data centers would still need rezonings to build in the area.
Manassas National Battlefield Park Superintendent Brandon Bies wrote letters to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and the county planning office on Dec. 3, outlining the park’s “strong” opposition to the proposal over its potential historical, environmental and viewshed impacts. Bies wrote that he has “grave concerns” about the “potential irreparable harm” the development would cause to the park.
“Manassas National Battlefield Park strongly opposes this CPA because it is certain to have a substantial negative impact on historic resources both within and outside of the park that are significant to the battle,” Bies wrote. “... Changing the planned land use of these areas would inhibit the mission of the Park to preserve and honor the sacrifices of the 4,000 Americans who died at Manassas.”
Manassas National Battlefield Park is the site of two American Civil War battles – the First Battle of Bull Run and the Second Battle of Bull Run – that took place in 1861 and 1862. The park encompasses 5,071 acres and is visited by over 600,000 people every year.
Bies compared the PW Digital Gateway to proposals pitched in the 1980s and 1990s: a 550-acre shopping mall proposal in 1988 known as the “William Center” and the Walt Disney Company’s plan to construct a “Disney’s America” theme park about three miles west of the park. Both proposals garnered national media attention – and widespread condemnation from county residents – before they were voted down by county supervisors.
“In both of these cases, the board of county supervisors was attracted by the lure of tax revenue promised by these developments. The same can certainly be said about the current proposal for a 2,133-acre data center corridor along Pageland Lane. But just as was the case in 1988 and 1993, this proposal is extremely concerning to the National Park Service,” Bies said.
Some supervisors have pointed to the economic investment new data centers could bring to the county. In the last decade, data centers have become a significant driver of local commercial tax revenue.
At-large board Chair Ann Wheeler (D) and Supervisor Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, have said the PW Digital Gateway could significantly boost the county’s budget and potentially allow the board to reduce residential tax rates. The developers behind the plan say the PW Digital Gateway will generate an estimated $700 million per year in real estate taxes and taxes on computer equipment and peripherals used in data centers. No independent analysis has been done to verify that claim, however.
The developers point to Loudoun County for comparison, where 25 million square feet of data centers contributed $586 million in local taxes in 2021. Loudoun County’s data center tax rate, at $4.20 per $100 in assessed value, is more than three times Prince William County’s current rate, which is $1.50 per $100 in assessed value.
Bies said he is most concerned about the 570 acres of in the proposal that lies closest to the park and between Little Bull Run and the park’s western boundary. Bies said that land, although not currently within the park’s boundary, is “significant to the Second Battle of Manassas,” and includes “hallowed ground” where soldiers on both sides fought and died.
Bies said the National Park Service is requesting the board of county supervisors consider removing those 570 acres from consideration for data centers.
“The southern 570 acres of the 2,133-acre application area is particularly sensitive and has been recognized by both state and federal agencies for its significance and direct association with the Battle of Second Manassas. If anything, these lands should either be removed from the application, or otherwise designated as an area to be preserved,” Bies said.
Bies: Transmission lines don't 'destroy the historic and scenic character' of the area
Bies also wrote that he believes the CPA application for the PW Digital Gateway contains “numerous inaccuracies, omissions and mischaracterizations.” Among them, he said, are assertions made by the applicant that the area surrounding the park has lost its agricultural character.
The applicants for the PW Digital Gateway are homeowners who live on Pageland Lane and want to sell their homes for data centers. They contend that Pageland Lane is “no longer rural” because of a noticeable increase in commuter traffic on the road in recent years, encroaching development and a massive Dominion Energy transmission line built in 2008 that traverses the corridor and Manassas National Battlefield Park.
“The applicant states that the battlefield has been ‘marred’ by the presence of this transmission line. While the towers and lines certainly have a visual impact, the views from the park still maintain an entirely rural and agricultural feeling, to include distant but distinct views of the Bull Run Mountains,” Bies said.
“The mere presence of a power transmission line does not in itself destroy the entire historic and scenic character of an area,” Bies added.
Prince William County requested Manassas National Battlefield Park’s input about the PW Digital Gateway because of its proximity to the park. All county agencies must submit their comments on the proposal by Dec. 10.
Bies is leaving his post as park superintendent on Saturday, Dec. 11, to take a job with the National Park Service at Acadia National Park in Maine.
So far, more than 80 of the Pageland Lane corridor’s residents have signed onto the PW Digital Gateway CPA application asking the county to replan their homes for data center uses. The applicants range from families who have lived and farmed along Pageland Lane for generations to newer residents who live in upscale homes on smaller lots.
The proposal has proved divisive, pitting the PW Digital Gateway’s applicants against people who live nearby and oppose the project, including Heritage Hunt, a 3,500-resident, age-restricted community next door.
The plan has also split elected officials -- including some within the same party. The board’s five Democratic supervisors voted along party lines to initiate the CPA, but the proposal is opposed by Del. Danica Roem, D-13th, who represents the Gainesville area.
It’s also opposed by two Republican supervisors, Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, and Yesli Vega, R-Coles. Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, joined his Catharpin Farm Estates neighbors in requesting the CPA in November – even though he said earlier this year he would fight data centers in the rural crescent “tooth and nail.” Candland now says he will recuse himself from any vote on the PW Digital Gateway.
The PW Digital Gateway is also being backed by of a coalition of Northern Virginia trade unions. They say the plan will create tens of thousands of prevailing wage construction and trade jobs and will provide steady employment for the region’s trade workers over the course of its years-long construction.
Meanwhile, the proposal is opposed by a coalition of local, regional and national conservation and environmental groups, including the Prince William Conservation Alliance, Piedmont Environmental Council, the American Battlefield Trust and the National Parks Conservation Association.
It is not known when the plan will come to the board of county supervisors for a public hearing and a vote but will likely be sometime in 2022.
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com