Prince William County supervisors voted along party lines early Wednesday to take steps to amend the county’s data center overlay district, paving the way for a potential expansion that could allow data centers to locate within some areas of the county more easily.
The board voted 5-3 after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, May 19, to spend $120,000 to hire a contractor to begin work on amending the overlay district, an area where data centers are allowed by right. The board’s five Democratic supervisors voted in favor, while the three Republican supervisors were opposed.
The current data center overlay district was created in 2016 and allows data centers to move into the certain areas of the county without a special use permit, provided they are located near electrical transmission lines. Any expansion of the data center overlay district would also aim to locate data centers in areas that have the infrastructure to support them, “including in locations with high voltage power lines,” according to county staff.
The contractor and county staff are expected to return with a proposal to expand the data center overlay district in six to nine months.
The potential expansion of the district comes amid uncertainty about how much vacant land viable for data centers remains within the existing overlay district. County officials have said space within the overlay district is quickly running out.
Meanwhile, demand for land for data centers in the area has skyrocketed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with vacant land sales for data centers reaching nearly $1 million per acre in recent months. In April, Amazon Web Services purchased 58 acres of land in Gainesville for data center uses for $52.4 million, according to a Washington Business Journal report.
The potential expansion of the district has been the subject of fierce debate in the county, especially between residents who want to preserve the county’s rural crescent, a 75,000-acre stretch of land in the western side of the county that remains largely undeveloped, and some rural crescent residents who would like to sell their land to data center developers but cannot because of the current zoning.
More than a dozen landowners are pushing for data centers to be allowed along Pageland Lane, which is adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park and within the rural crescent, near the border of Prince William and Loudoun counties. Those landowners revealed in February a proposal for an 800-acre data center campus along the corridor, which is bordered by an electrical transmission line.
Many of those residents came out in support of hiring a contractor to redraw the data overlay district during the board’s May 18 meeting. Pointing to increasing road traffic and the construction of electric transmission lines along the corridor, many said the area is no longer as rural as it once was.
Some also noted that the previous board of supervisors approved a 3 million square foot data center known as “Gainesville Crossing” on Pageland Lane in 2019. That development, which has yet to be constructed, is just outside the rural crescent and directly across the street from Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, whose district includes Pageland Lane and who lives nearby, said he is adamantly opposed to any expansion of data centers along the corridor.
“I reject this idea that Pageland Lane is some kind of junk corridor that’s not good for anything but building data centers,” Candland said.
Democratic supervisors have supported expanding the data center overlay district, with some supervisors stating that increasing the number of data centers in the county could bring in more tax revenue to either lower the real estate tax rate or add funding for county schools.
In 2020, the county collected $64 million in tax revenue from data centers, according to county documents.
Board Chair Ann Wheeler, D-at-large, said the action allows the study of the existing data center overlay district but reiterated the board was not yet taking action to expand the district.
“This isn’t a vote to accept a huge data center overlay district along every power corridor in the county,” Wheeler said.
The expansion of the data center overlay district is opposed by local conservation and environmental groups including the Prince William Conservation Alliance, the Coalition to Protect Prince William County and the local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society.
National Park officials from the battlefield and Prince William Forest Park asked the board to move forward with caution as they consider adding new data centers. Brandon Bies, superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park, urged the board to “avoid causing irreversible or permanent damage to the national parks.”
The data center overlay expansion received support during the May 18 meeting from the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 26 union and the Baltimore-DC Metro Building and Construction Trades Council.
“We’re running out of space,” said Ross Snare, chief operations officer for the Prince William Chamber of Commerce. “We need to find a way to improve that and improve the commercial tax base.”
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