Citing threats to historic resources of national significance, the Prince William County Historical Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to urge that the board of supervisors not approve the “Prince William Digital Gateway” as proposed and instead shield key areas from development.
Those areas include land within the Manassas Battlefield Historic District as well as the birthplace and gravesite of Jennie Dean, a local icon who was born into slavery and later founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, Northern Virginia’s first high school for African American students.
During more than four hours of discussion that spanned two meetings – held Monday, Oct. 3, and Tuesday, Oct. 11 – the historical commission reviewed research about the Pageland Lane area, including its role in the First and Second Battles of Manassas, both pivotal in the Civil War, and the area’s use as an encampment for Confederate troops after the First Battle of Manassas.
Among other things, the commission discussed how troops training in the Pageland area from North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama were beset by measles in the late summer and early fall of 1861, leaving more than 200 men dead, according to several sources.
The commission noted that the southern portion of the Digital Gateway study area, which it defines as between Little Bull Run and U.S. 29, is particularly significant because the area lies within the battlefield’s “congressional boundaries,” meaning Civil War activity occurred there despite it not being formally part of the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service defined “the Manassas Battlefield Historic District” as spanning 6,400 acres, of which only 5,073 acres are contained by the park’s boundaries. Another 1,396 acres lie along the Pageland Lane corridor and within the 2,133-acre area that would be replanned for data centers if the supervisors approve the PW Digital Gateway comprehensive plan amendment. A final vote is scheduled for Nov. 1.
The area is also believed to contain a Civil War mass burial site recognized by both Prince William County and the state of Virginia, even though its precise location has not been determined. During their discussions, the commissioners noted that the measles outbreak could have necessitated the mass burial site, rather than troop losses during the two battles.
The commissioners also noted that 22,000 Confederate and Union troops were wounded or killed in the battles and that many of the wounded wandered off the battlefield to homes in the Pageland Lane corridor that served as field hospitals.
“That’s 22,000 casualties over the course of three days,” said Morgan “Blaine” Pearsall, who represents the Gainesville District, the home of Manassas National Battlefield Park, on the historical commission. “That is the size of Jiffy Lube Live. Jiffy Lube at full capacity is 25,000. Imagine that volume.”
Pearsall made the comment during an Oct. 3 special meeting devoted solely to updating the historical commission’s position on the Gateway comprehensive plan amendment, which if approved by the supervisors, would open land that is both in the county’s rural crescent and adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park to industrial development for the first time.
Since first introduced by the landowners in March 2021, the proposal has sparked major opposition from conservation groups, nearby Gainesville residents not included in potential land sales, the Manassas National Battlefield Park itself, along with supporting nonprofits, such as the National Parks Conservation Association, and some elected officials.
The historical commission, a body of residents appointed by individual supervisors, is charged by Prince William County code to assess new developments for their impacts on historic resources.
Confusion delays commission’s input
Pearsall noted that the historical commission had recommended as early as last May that the PW Digital Gateway be split into northern and southern sections and that the southern section’s agricultural designation remain unchanged to protect historical assets.
Pearsall said he could not understand why the data center companies and the Pageland Lane landowners – who the commissioners assumed were the applicants for the Gateway proposal -- never responded to the recommendation. That lack of response led to the historical commission reiterating its May recommendation during its Sept. 13 meeting.
Nevertheless, the Prince William County Planning Commission recommended approval of the amendment during a marathon meeting that stretched into the early morning hours of Sept. 15. Pearsall said he didn’t understand until after the planning commission’s vote that the county itself – rather than the data center companies or the landowners – is assuming the role of “applicant” for the amendment.
That arrangement was seemingly unclear to much of the community – including the planning commission – and led to Board Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At Large, moving to delay the supervisors’ final vote on the PW Digital Gateway CPA from Oct. 11 to Nov. 1 to “clear up confusion about the process.”
During the Oct. 3 meeting, Pearsall and other historical commissioners expressed disappointment that the county planning staff continues to recommend that the southern Pageland stretch – which lies within the Manassas Battlefield Historic District – be replanned for “tech/flex,” a designation that would allow data centers.
“I mean, these are areas that are important to the United States of America, to our state and to our county, and it’s completely being ignored,” Pearsall said.
Other commissioners also objected. Commissioner Jim Burgess, who represents the Occoquan District, called the Gateway “an atrocious atrocity” and “a rape of Prince William County.”
“It’s a horrible plan, promoted by developers and people who are going to get filthy rich by it,” Burgess said. “If we allow developers to dictate the future of Prince William County, it’s not a smart move and it’s certainly not in the public interest.”
But other commissioners, including Occoquan Mayor Earnie Porta, an at-large member of the historical commission, and Vice Chair Yolanda Green, who represents the Potomac District, said they understood those objections but felt the historical commission should offer ideas for protecting the historic assets if the supervisors approve the amendment.
That discussion led the historic commission to vote on Oct. 3 to urge that the supervisors exclude from data center development the area between Little Bull Run and U.S. 29 in the southern section of the Gateway study area and the area between Sudley Road and “an unnamed tributary of Lick Branch” in the northern section. The latter contains the area once known as “Cushing Farm” where the Dean family, including Jennie Dean, was enslaved and where they eventually owned property and were buried.
On Oct. 11, the historical commission continued its discussion for another 90 minutes. At the end, the group agreed to draft a letter to the supervisors explaining their opposition and detailing the historic resources that lie within the Gateway area and outside the battlefield boundaries, an option suggested by County Archeologist Justin Patton, who guides the commission’s work.
Some of the historic assets lie within the areas the county planners designated as “parks and open space” in the PW Digital Gateway plan. The county plan sets aside 800 of the 2,133-acre area as park space. An identified “weakness” of the plan, however, according to county planning staff, is that those properties are not part of the two rezoning applications already submitted for the area and therefore are not being proffered for such protections.
As a result, the county has no way of ensuring that the historically sensitive areas will be protected, Patton said, unless the county purchases the properties, perhaps with grant funding.
Attorneys for data center developers QTS and Compass have already requested in a Sept. 9 letter that the county remove automatic protections for the suspected Civil War mass burial site and instead require more archeological investigation when future rezonings are considered. The planning commission included the recommendation in its vote to recommend approval, but county staff has not decided its position on the matter, Patton said.
The commission is working on a final version of its letter, which it plans to submit to the supervisors as soon as possible.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org
The strategy has always been obvious. Approve it fast before people realize what's going on. Now that there is a laundry list of problems in every possible category related to this project, it must be stopped.
It is not enough to delay this decision. It should be re examined by the Planning Commission. If the county is the applicant, the judge and the jury that leaves the public totally out of this decision. The county government should be a neutral body not an advocate for a project that they can approve.
Once this is rejected or withdrawn we need to settle how to protect the rural crescent and the park. Some think it is a temporary thing, others moved here because the county designated it as rural. Or, make the entire county a data center zone and no one will fight it, Fairfax, Fauquier and Loudoun may object but, heck, they don't vote here. $250T for every acre in PWC. Imagine $510M for Uncle Sam if the feds sell the battlefield. We could cancel all school debt? Woohoo. Not.
Interestingly the battlefield will actually gain almost 10 new acres from the PWDG which will bring it to its CONGRESSIONALLY MANDATED MAXIMUM SIZE ALLOWED.
Let's be honest nothing says the 1861/1862/Civil War like 115" foot high power towers and wires hanging from them on the Western edge of the battlefield, the 26,000 cars per day that roll right through the heart of the battlefield every day or the thousands of cars that clog Pageland Lane every day. As has been said many times before not a single blade of grass will be touched within the boundaries of the MNBP and what's on the other side of that boundary line is known as private property. These 2133 acres do not sit within any historical or environmental easements. The MNBP is protected today and will continue to be when the PWDG is developed.
Is the Prince William Historical Commission yet another informed organization to be ignored by the lemmings running our county government? If so, they’re in good company with the Prince William County Watershed Management Branch, Manassas National Battlefield Park, the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Development, the Fairfax County Water Authority, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and on and on and on.
I was present at the meeting on October 3rd where members of the Planning Office staff were present. On two occasions, I heard staff members cite “Supervisor priorities” when rationalizing a Planning Office position dismissive of historical preservation concerns.
The Supervisors are elected officials and perfectly empowered to vote as they choose when a proposal reaches them. However, it is the duty of professional government staff to make fact-based assessments, free of political influence, when preparing their recommendations. When Supervisors extend their reach into what is supposed to be an impartial review process, it corrupts the integrity of that process and undermines the credibility of the outcome. The predictable result is public skepticism and acrimony.
One of the Historical Commission members summed up the Prince William Digital Gateway concisely: “It’s a horrible plan, promoted by developers and people who are going to get filthy rich by it. If we allow developers to dictate the future of Prince William County, it’s not a smart move and it’s certainly not in the public interest.”
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