As debate rages over a plan to open 2,100 acres of rural land in the northern end of Prince William to a huge new data center industrial park called the Prince William Digital Gateway, much of it hinges on the claim that the county is running out of land for data center use.
Much of that conclusion hinges on how much land has been or can be developed inside the county’s “Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District,” an irregular blob of properties mostly in the county’s center that offer access to the electric power, fiber-optic cable and other utilities and allows data center construction by-right. Not to be ignored, however, is the question of how much data center development is also underway outside the overlay district. Now, a new county report sheds light on those questions, suggesting that there is more data center space likely to be developed in Prince William County than was supposed.
Prior to the report’s release, an evaluation of the overlay district by the county’s Department of Economic Development stood as the official measure. On May 27, 2021, its director, Christina Winn, sent a letter to the board of supervisors saying her department’s “market viability review” of the overlay district determined that of the district’s 8,700 acres, only 600 to 1,100 were “market viable” and only two of those parcels are larger than 100 acres – a size she said “most” data center operators are looking for.
That assessment was widely cited for nearly a year. A November 2021 flyer sent out by advocates of the Digital Gateway stated: “Currently there is only about 100 acres available” for data centers in the overlay district. And Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At Large, appeared to refer to Winn’s conclusion in an email to a constituent. “There is not sufficient room in the current Overlay District. There are some parcels left, but they do not total much acreage and are not large enough nor contiguous for this type of project,” she wrote, explaining why the Digital Gateway deserves consideration. Citizens favoring the new data center corridor have said the same thing at public forums.
Winn declined to be interviewed for this story. Through a spokesperson, she maintained, as her May letter stated, that her department was just trying to identify parcels not already owned, used, nor planned for development by data centers – that is, those available to show to data center developers.
Still, the evaluation did not address how many data centers are likely to be built within the overlay district – and on its edges – when all is said and done. And that is not an arcane issue: It has become front and center in the debate over whether Prince William needs to expand its data center overlay district or open the rural area for the Digital Gateway. Key to those questions are policy decisions about how many data centers the county wants to allow, which have yet to be made.
Some county leaders have suggested that Prince William should take a lesson from Loudoun, which gets about 40% of its revenue from taxing the servers and other equipment in the huge warehouse-like buildings. Loudoun has 25 million square feet of data centers that are expected to bring in $586 million in tax revenue this year, with another 4 million more in development, according to the county’s website. However, Loudoun County’s tax rate on data center computer equipment is more than double that of Prince William’s -- $4.20 per $100 in assessed value versus Prince William’s current rate of $1.50, which bumps up to $1.65 on July 1. Taxes on data centers generated about $80 million for Prince William County this past year.
Frustrated with the initially limited information coming from the county, western Prince William County residents Bob Weir and Bill Wright, two critics of the proposed Prince William Digital Gateway, set out to quantify data farm prospects in the county’s overlay district and on its fringes. Late last fall, they sifted through applications, staff reports, news reports and more to find what was being built and what was proposed. In the end, they identified more than 6 million square feet of operating data centers in Prince William County and found another 26.8 million square feet of buildings under development.
“There's more land available than they claim there is. There's more under development than they have told anybody. And at the end of the day, I'm concerned that they may be developing more square footage than is commercially viable,” said Weir, a Haymarket town councilman.
33 data centers, 19 more on the way
The new county report released April 29, titled “Data Center Overlay – Frequently Asked Questions," uses a different approach than Wright and Weir but largely validates their findings. And together, they form a comprehensive look at prospective data center development in the county.
As a starting point, the new report says the county has 33 data centers in operation, including 29 inside the overlay district and four outside, totaling nearly 5.5 million square feet. Then, in a series of charts, county planners itemize 19 more data centers on the path to being built both inside and outside the overlay district.
Eleven of the 19 are found in a chart of 21 currently vacant parcels inside the overlay district that are larger than 30 acres. Eight are listed as “under construction” and three more as “pending.”
Overhead imagery shows that many are undergoing ground-clearing operations. There is no square footage listed for the 11 projects under construction or pending, but, assuming the 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of building per acre that is typical in Prince William, their collective 747.7 acres could add 7.5 million to 15 million more square feet to the county’s aggregate.
Turning to sites outside the overlay district, the planners list eight more applications, five of which have been approved by the county comprising 12.5 million square feet and three more that are pending. If all were approved, they would total nearly 15.9 million more square feet.
Thus, the data center properties listed as currently operating, under construction, or pending in some manner, both inside and outside the overlay district, could total between 29.1 and 33.4 million square feet – more than the 29 million Loudoun has right now.
Beyond those sites, there are 10 properties of more than 30 acres on the planners’ chart of 21 that are not yet under construction. They can all be turned into data centers by-right, and six of them are owned by known data center developers. Their 720 acres would yield at least 7 to 14 million more square feet.
The planners also report that three landowners outside the overlay have petitioned for changes to the comprehensive plan that would allow for three more data center campuses on 624 acres.
One is the just-proposed Devlin Technology Park on 270 acres off Linton Hill Road previously slated for a Stanley Martin home development. It would accommodate up to 4.2 million square feet of data center buildings. Another is the House Family Farm, which has requested land-use and zoning changes to allow for a data center on its 277 acres in Nokesville. Assuming 10,000 to 20,000 square feet per acre, the three could create between 6 and 12 million more square feet of data buildings.
If all of the parcels mentioned above were developed, the county’s totals could reach 40 to 60 million square feet – a number that would nearly double Loudoun’s current data center space. And that’s not counting the additional 27 million square feet that is proposed for the Prince William Digital Gateway.
But wait, there’s more.
Of course, some applications might not get approved, and some developers might pull out, but there is another cache of potential data sites not cited in the planning office report. Wright and Weir identified 22 more parcels inside the overlay they labeled as “under development” in the county. Fifteen of those are not included in the county’s document because they are under 30 acres. But research shows that smaller parcels are not necessarily undesirable. Indeed, the average parcel size for Prince William’s operating data centers is about 23 acres. Seven are on less than 10 acres; one is on 7.3 acres.
Lately, developers have been assembling smaller lots to make things work. Two weeks ago, for instance, Stack Infrastructure announced it had joined two parcels of 19.2 and 14.9 acres just west of Manassas into a 34.1-acre property on which it intends to build a 602,000-square-foot data building.
Others are using small lots but building up. South Point Phase II LLC, which recently assembled 22.2 acres from six small parcels along Buckeye Timber Drive in Manassas, says it would like to create up to 530,000 square feet of data center space by building 67 feet, or at least three stories, high. Prince William allows data centers to build up to 75 feet high under the right conditions.
Developers are gobbling up other properties thought not desirable. The county economic development department’s May 2021 assessment, for instance, ruled out 627 parcels as candidates for data centers because they were occupied, were in use, or, the department believed, not for sale. Seventy-two of them are between 10 and 40 acres in size. But in early April, by paying $1 million an acre, the real estate company PRP assembled two smaller properties west of Manassas among this group into a 35-acre parcel. It intends to build three data center buildings with a total of 990,150 square feet, according to Data Center Dynamics.
“The right price suddenly made the property available. And the opportunity made it worthwhile to clear and repurpose the land,” said Wright, a retired Navy captain who lives in Heritage Hunt.
Expanding without a decision.
Whether the county’s existing data center overlay district will be enlarged to add even more properties is set to be decided this summer or fall. A contractor, Stantec Architectural of Arlington, is studying an expansion, and another contractor, Camoin Associates of Saratoga Springs, New York, is doing a market analysis of data centers and other targeted industries. Both studies are due in a month or so, according to Deputy County Executive Rebecca Horner.
But in the meantime, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has been expanding the overlay district anyway by approving data center projects via special use permits.
Two data centers totaling more than 500,000 square feet, one run by Amazon and one owned by DC 11 DE LLC, are operating in Haymarket outside the overlay district; they were approved before the overlay district was created in 2016. According to the planning office, five more parcels outside the district have been re-zoned for data center use since late 2019, including Gainesville Crossing, north of I-66 near U.S. 29, and the I-66 and U.S. 29 Technology Park, at U.S. 29 south of I-66.
Three other owners of land outside the overlay have re-zonings pending, and three more have requested changes in the county’s land-use plan so they can build data centers, too.
Adding up what’s built, what’s under construction, what’s pending approval and what’s likely, it appears that Prince William could well exceed the data center square footage of its neighbor to the north.
“You can see that Prince William County is already on track to surpass Loudoun County as data center capital of the universe, even without the Prince William Digital Gateway,” said Wright in a forum last week. Still, he noted, “the county has articulated no end goal for data center development.”
Reach Peter Cary at firstname.lastname@example.org