Following a controversial party-line vote to approve a 99-home development in the county’s “rural crescent” last week, several members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors’ Democratic majority have said for the first time that they are open to increased development in the rural area, including for industrial uses such as data centers and “workforce housing.”
At-large board Chair Ann Wheeler (D) said in an interview Friday, Jan. 22, that she would be willing to look for new commercial- and industrial-zoned land within the rural area and possibly expand the county’s data center overlay district into the rural area as the board updates the county’s comprehensive plan.
“We need more commercial land and industrial land. We’ve got to find it somewhere,” Wheeler said during the board’s Jan. 19 meeting.
Attracting new businesses to the county, a key goal of Wheeler’s 2019 campaign, would increase the county’s commercial tax base, she said, and “reduce the [tax] burden” on county residents. The county’s current residential property tax rate of $1.125 per $100 is the sixth highest in Northern Virginia. Past boards have also aimed to increase the commercial tax base but have struggled to do so.
“We need to have a longer-term vision for Prince William County,” Wheeler said. “We're still really trying to figure out what we want to be over the next 20 years, and we need flexibility… in how we move forward to get our commercial or industrial tax base larger.”
Wheeler noted that there is a dwindling amount of space left in the existing data center overlay district. Prince William County Deputy County Executive Rebecca Horner confirmed on Wednesday that the amount of land left in the district has been reduced “due to the success of developing data centers in the county.”
Horner noted that, while it is difficult to calculate the exact amount of land left, more than 1,000 acres remain open in the nearly 10,000-acre overlay district.
Wheeler also added that there is limited industrial-zoned land left within the county’s development area. The issue was highlighted last fall when an asphalt company applied for a special use permit to build an asphalt plant near an elementary school. The board deadlocked on the application, effectively killing it, and the asphalt company moved on saying there was no other suitable place for the project within the county.
“There are businesses that would move in if they had larger tracts of land,” Wheeler said.
Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, also said he is in favor of looking for more industrial and commercial space in the county. Asked in a Jan. 22 interview whether he would support such development in the rural area, he said, “it would depend on how it was implemented.” He added that expanding industrial development into the rural area could be very costly to the county because the public infrastructure to support such uses does not exist there.
But Boddye did not appear to reject the idea altogether, saying that if there are industries that could be sited in the rural area that do not need the same level of sewer and water infrastructure as they would in the development area, then those uses, he said, “should be, not necessarily by-right, but be close to by-right.”
Discussion among county leaders of siting a data center within the rural area in the Potomac magisterial district as part of the proposed Independent Hill Small Area Plan has been ongoing since last fall, but it remains unclear whether those discussions are still taking place. Supervisor Andrea Bailey, D-Potomac, said in an interview on Jan. 22 that there was no such plan to site data center there, and that she has “not made a firm decision on a data center at all” for that parcel of land.
“I think that that is a smoke screen that people were putting out there to have a narrative to prevent the development of that area,” Bailey said.
Bailey added that she is in favor of creating new, workforce housing for middle-income families, as well as a mix of housing types, in the rural area. It is the first time that a newly elected supervisor has advocated for increased residential development in the rural area.
Asked whether she had concerns about whether such development is in line with smart-growth strategies or could increase sprawl in the area, Bailey said “sprawl” is a “buzz word to put an element of fear into the positive possibilities of what can happen in the rural area.”
Bailey also falsely claimed during the Jan. 19 board meeting that she lives in the rural area. She later said that she had misspoken and does not live in the rural area, but rather at the edge of the rural area near Prince William Forest Park. Bailey lives in the Brittany subdivision off of Va. 234 outside Dumfries.
Large-lot landowners court data centers
The board’s interest in new development in the rural area has already pricked the ears of developers and large-lot landowners in the rural area, some of whom have been lobbying the board for years to allow data centers and higher density residential development on their land.
Dale House, whose family owns Dutch Land Farm in Nokesville, declined to say whether he is seeking to site a data center on the property. However, a public real estate listing shows that 277 acres of the family’s land is for sale with “the potential for data center or higher-density residential use” with “water and sewer nearby.”
House said the property is crossed by two transmission lines, which could make it suitable for data center development.
Many farmers in the area, including House, have sought to sell their farms and move out of the county as the population has grown. Only around 10,000 acres of land in the rural area is being actively farmed as of 2020. Dutch Land Farm has been in the county for over 150 years. Their dairy farm, the last in Prince William County, shuttered in 2020.
House said the board's approval of the 99-home “Preserve at Long Branch” on Jan. 20 was “a light at the end of the tunnel” for the family. The board’s approval of “The Preserve” marks one of very few instances that the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has allowed a higher density residential development with sewer within the rural area since the boundary was created in 1998.
“We haven't ever had any supervisors support us like this,” House said.
Another rural area landowner, Mary Ann Ghadban, has lobbied the board of supervisors on numerous occasions to open up the rural area for data center use, emails show. Ghadban said in a July 2020 email to board supervisors that she would like to see the board “expand the data center overlay district to follow the existing transmission lines” in the county. In another email, she provided photos of the transmission lines that cross her own property in the rural area bordering Manassas Battlefield Park.
“Western PWC has enough land with existing transmission lines to create a very lucrative ‘Data Center Alley 2.0 in PWC,’ similar to Loudoun's,” Ghadban said.
Ghadban did not return requests for comment.
Backlash to proposed development in the rural area
Proposals seeking to allow new industrial-zoned land, data centers or residential housing in the rural area will almost surely provoke a backlash from environmental activists, rural area residents and the board’s three Republican supervisors who want to keep the current rules in place.
The rural-area policy, adopted created in 1998, allows for only one home to be built per 10 acres of land. It was initially put in place to help reduce sprawl and to protect the county’s existing agricultural resources. It makes up about 54% of Prince William County’s total landmass, including Marine Corps Base Quantico, Prince William Forest Park and Manassas Battlefield Park.
But it has very little land zoned for industrial use with the exception of a small portion of the data center overlay district located near the Fauquier County border. And the low residential density in the area has kept the population low at about 27,000 residents, or 5% of the county’s total population.
Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, said on Tuesday that she has serious environmental concerns about placing data centers in the rural area, in addition to concerns about their impact on agritourism and agribusiness in the county.
“Why would we not first focus on the development areas that have infrastructure means that are far better than using resources to build infrastructure out into the rural area?” Lawson asked. “You’re going to drive up that the need for massive transmission lines all over the rural area and that's going to go over like a lead balloon.”
Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, directed county staff in October to determine what level of utility service would be needed to support data centers in the rural area. In an interview on Thursday, Candland said that the directive was a pre-emptive move ahead of possible discussion of new data center use in the county.
“I've seen this movement among some folks in the business industry and on the board of county supervisors, I've heard these rumors that they were going to try and push for data centers in the ‘rural crescent.’ And so, I'm trying to get prepared to understand the huge cost of what it would take to potentially huge cost of what it would take to actually put these data centers in the rural crescent,” Candland said.
Candland said he is strongly opposed to adding any new data centers in the rural area. The directive is still listed as “in progress” on the county website.
Elena Schlossberg, executive director of The Coalition to Protect Prince William County, said allowing data centers in the rural area would require utility extensions into the rural area at the expense of county taxpayers. She added that she believes adding data centers would not be in accordance with the county’s newly adopted environmental and climate goals that aim to reduce both sprawl and local greenhouse gas emissions.
“Whether you care about smart land use, whether you care about climate change, [people] should be horrified. Turning the ‘rural crescent’ into data centers is the most deplorable proposal I think I've heard yet,” Schlossberg said. “... Planting houses and data centers is not land preservation and it's certainly not environmentally sensitive and it certainly is not going to stop the impacts of the global warming.”
Schlossberg was involved in a years-long dispute over a new Dominion transmission line needed to power a data center in Haymarket. A compromise was eventually reached on a hybrid route that required stretches of the new line to be buried underground. Schlossberg said adding new development in the area would only spur development there, to the detriment of the county’s environmental resources.
"[If] we're going to put high density housing and data centers in the rural area, and there will no longer be a rural area,” Schlossberg said.