Planning Commissioners went back and forth Wednesday over concerns about the Independent Hill Small Area Plan – a proposal that aims to lay the foundation for new development along the Va. 234 corridor in the mid-county area and could open 85 acres of the county’s “rural crescent” to commercial uses, including data centers.
The public work session was held ahead of the Planning Commission’s public hearing on the proposal scheduled for next Wednesday, July 15.
The 544-acre small area plan includes land in both the Coles and Potomac magisterial districts near the Prince William County landfill on Va. 234. The area is mostly rural. The county’s animal shelter and the Prince William County Schools administration building are located within the study area.
County planners say they want to create a walkable suburban residential and commercial community near the intersection of Va. 234 and Bristow Road and add a large “technology/flexible industrial” area next to the landfill. The “tech/flex” district would be located within the county’s “data center overlay district,” which includes lands in proximity to high voltage electric transmission lines. Data centers require large amounts of electricity to operate.
If approved, the plan could add between 84 and 270 new homes and between 114 and 717 new residents within the bounds of the small area plan, all of which will be located in the Coles District. The area is now home to about 128 people, county planners said during the work session. The plan also includes new zoning for community mixed-use development, which includes townhomes, multi-family residential and retail space.
Planning Commissioner Rick Berry (Gainesville) raised concerns about how the plan could impact overcrowding at nearby schools. The Independent Hill area is currently served by Coles Elementary School, Benton Middle and Colgan High School.
Coles Elementary and Benton Middle have capacity to add more students. But Colgan High School is already about 500 more students overcapacity, according to planning documents.
“I think we continue to underestimate the need for schools,” Berry said. “Somehow we’ve got to get a handle on appropriately getting the school infrastructure before we build out the residents.”
The plan would also rezone approximately 85 acres of the area known as the “rural crescent” as public facility office. The acres are located along the Va. 234 corridor in the Potomac District. The “public facility office” designation is a relatively new zoning classification that would allow government facilities such as schools, libraries or public safety stations in addition to general office space.
The “rural crescent” is the phrase used by many county residents – but not by the county government – to describe the county’s rural preservation area that stretches from the Potomac District into the western reaches of the county. By policy, the supervisors generally limit public sewer connections in the rural crescent area and restrict development to one home per 10 acres. The designation dates back to the 1990s and was adopted in an effort to put the brakes on suburban sprawl.
The rezoning of the rural area was a sticking point for several planning commissioners. Planning Commissioner Joe Fontanella (Coles) said he could not support the plan unless the rezoning of the rural area was removed. Fontanella said chipping away of the county’s rural preservation area is “problematic” and “a deal-breaker.”
Planning Commissioner Juan McPhail (Potomac) did not agree with splitting the plan to remove the rural area rezoning. McPhail said he was confident “we can keep this plan as one, that we don’t have to split it.”
“For me and the Potomac District and the supervisor that I represent, it would be best to keep this plan as one,” McPhail said.
The 85 acres proposed for rezoning in the rural crescent is not within the county’s data center overlay district. But county staff said during the work session that data center development is not excluded from the public facility office zoning designation.
That has county land-use advocates warning that the Independent Hill Small Area Plan could lead to the construction of a data center within the rural crescent.
Elena Schlossberg, executive director of the Coalition to Protect PWC, said in an email Thursday that a “massive data center campus is not only being pushed” outside the data center overlay district, but that it would also “be placed on parcels within the rural crescent.”
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has approved data center projects outside of the county’s data center overlay district, most recently in December 2019 when the board approved the 4 million-square-foot data center campus known as Gainesville Crossing off of Interstate 66.
The discussion ended with Planning Commission Chair Bill Milne (Neabsco) requesting that staff defer next week’s public hearing to a later date to address concerns raised by the commissioners. County staff said that because the public hearing had already been advertised, they would need to seek the advice of the county attorney before rescheduling the public hearing.
As of Thursday, the public hearing on the Independent Hill Small Area Plan was still scheduled for Wednesday, July 15.