As the controversial "Prince William Digital Gateway" heads to the Prince William County Planning Commission for its first public hearing Wednesday night, the county’s historical commission is recommending the plan be denied due to its impacts on some of the county’s most sensitive historic resources, including the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
During a Tuesday, Sept. 13 meeting, the historical commission decided to stick with comments it drafted in May urging that the Prince William Digital Gateway project be split into two sections – north and south – and that the southern section maintain its current land-use designation to preserve the battlefield as well as a wider area known as the national park’s “congressional boundaries.”
The designation identifies areas outside the park’s current boundaries where Civil War fighting took place and is therefore is historically significant.
“We don’t want to come off as being against data centers, because that’s really not what this is about,” said Morgan “Blaine” Pearsall II, who represents the Gainesville District on the county’s historical commission.
Rather, Pearsall said, the recommendation is meant to convey the historic commissioners’ concerns about the battlefield and the artifacts that likely remain outside its boundaries and the importance of protecting those areas from development.
“There’s more resources that we know about in the southern part. It’s right next to the battlefield. You can open a book and know there was fighting outside” the park’s boundaries, Pearsall said in an interview after the Sept. 13 meeting.
The Historic Commission is appointed by the Prince William Board of Supervisors. Part of the group's mission is to evaluate all development projects for their impact on the county's historic resources.
The Prince William Digital Gateway is a plan to replan about 2,100 acres adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park to accommodate as many as 27 million square feet of data center space.
The proposal has become the most controversial land-use decision in at least a decade and has pitted a group of about 102 landowners in the Pageland Lane corridor -- all of whom want to sell their homes and land for data centers at a rate of about $1 million an acre -- against a growing opposition that includes the Manassas National Battlefield Park itself as well as the National Parks Conservation Group, several conservation groups and a coalition of homeowners' associations.
The historical commission defines the “southern section” of the Prince William Digital Gateway study area as anything between Thornton Road and U.S. 29. The area includes land where the Second Battle of Manassas was fought as well as a suspected Civil War mass burial, among other assets, according to the historical commission’s comments on the PW Digital Gateway comprehensive plan amendment staff report.
Among other recommendations, the historic commission is also asking that the county conduct an above ground architectural survey of the northern portion of the area, or the acreage north of Thornton Road, to identify any resources that might be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places before approving the comprehensive plan amendment.
The Prince William Planning Office is recommending approval of the county staff’s version of the comprehensive plan amendment. The county planning department proposes that 1,321.5 acres of the area be changed from agricultural and estate, or AE, to “tech/flex,” a designation that includes data centers and other industrial uses.
The county’s plan would designate 807.9 acres of the project area as parks and open space, including the southern tip of the gateway plan, which abuts both the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Memorial National Forest. The county’s plan would also designate about 9.6 acres of the area as “county historic registered sites.”
The county’s plan, however, does not comply with the historical commission’s recommendation that the area from U.S. 29 to Thornton Road maintain its current designation. The planning department’s staff report acknowledges the historical commission’s comments but says only: “Staff strongly considered these comments in our proposed plan.”
The staff’s Digital Gateway Plan, a separate set of policies the planning department says would guide the development of the Prince William Digital Gateway area if the plan is approved, includes several recommendations to “encourage” property owners to preserve the area’s many historic sites. The county’s zoning ordinance requires that known cemeteries be investigated and protected once development occurs.
A previous Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent has called the Prince William Digital Gateway "the single greatest threat to the park" in decades, and the plan continues to be opposed by the current park superintendent as well as the National Parks Conservation Association.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com