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Why A Local Primary Election Upset Could Mean Big Changes For Data Center Development

A surprise result in a Northern Virginia primary election has the potential to slow data center development in Prince William County, a market with a pipeline of projects that would make it the nation's largest data center hub.

Northern Virginia data center opponents protesting outside of Bisnow's DICE East event in Tysons last month.

On Tuesday, first-time candidate Deshundra Jefferson defeated incumbent Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair-at-Large Ann B. Wheeler in the county’s Democratic primary, an unexpected result in a race in which Wheeler’s support for large-scale data center development emerged as a central issue. 

“We need common sense limitations on data centers,” Jefferson told Bisnow in an interview Thursday. “It’s a big reason why I stepped up to run.”

With vocal data center opponent and current Brentsville District Supervisor Jeanine Lawson handily winning the GOP primary, November’s general election is all but certain to shift the board’s approach to data center development ahead of key land use decisions that could determine the fate of more than 24M SF of proposed data center projects. 

“Power has shifted,” said Elena Schlossberg, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, a group that has been among the leading voices pushing back on data center projects. “There are still other supervisors we’re hoping will either change their position or will lose their seats in the general election.”

Both Jefferson, a former news reporter and communications specialist, and Republican nominee Lawson called for placing constraints on data center development as a central piece of their primary campaigns. The candidates both attacked Wheeler over her support for a number of planned data center campuses in rural parts of the county or near residential communities, a development rush that has made data centers an above-the-fold issue in Prince William County. 

Supporters of these projects have touted the significant increase in tax revenue data centers would bring to Prince William County, and the subsequent benefits for local schools and government programs. But the impending influx of data centers, which are expected to make the county the nation’s largest data center hub by square footage, has sparked a wave of bipartisan pushback.

Residents and advocacy groups have raised concerns about data centers’ negative impact on the local environment, nearby historical landmarks and the rural character of the area. 

Much of the controversy has centered around a proposed data center district known as the PW Digital Gateway, which would open 2,139 mostly rural acres to data centers. County supervisors approved changes to the county’s land use master plan in November that allowed the project to move forward despite furious opposition from local residents and community groups.

Compass Datacenters and QTS are planning massive campuses within the Digital Gateway footprint, both exceeding 11M SF. 

A map showing the boundaries of the 2,139-acre PW Digital Gateway area.

Digital Gateway isn't the only project to rankle some Prince William residents. In Bristow, a proposal by Stanley Martin Homes to build 4M SF of data centers on 270 acres, a project the developer calls the Devlin Technology Park, has also sparked protest and organized opposition.

Last month, developer Chuck Kuhn purchased the 82-acre Hillwood Camping Park in Gainesville, with plans to develop nearly 1.8M SF of data centers.

Kuhn, in an interview with Bisnow Thursday, said he expects a reconstituted board will rethink where in Prince William County data centers are allowed to be built. 

“I think it's going to reshape the areas that we develop in and the areas that we do not develop,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it help or hurts, but there’s going to be change in terms of the vision that the board has with respect to data center development and where it takes place.”

According to Cushman & Wakefield, there is now more than 24M SF of data center development in the Prince William County pipeline. 

The campuses proposed by QTS, Compass and others still require additional rezoning and other land use changes that need to be approved by the Board of County Supervisors — a hurdle that could become significantly more difficult with either Jefferson or Lawson as chair.

For the most contentious of the data center land use decisions that have come before the current board, voting has typically split 5-3 in favor of changes sought by data center developers. The addition of either Lawson or Jefferson will likely see this majority disappear. 

Indeed, Lawson has floated the idea of a pause on all data center rezonings. Jefferson, who wants to see data centers taxed at higher rates in line with neighboring Loudoun and Fauquier counties, has spoken in opposition to the PW Digital Gateway specifically.

She told Bisnow that while she is not against all new data center development outright, much of what is being proposed is not in the public interest. 

“I have very deep concerns about those projects. If I were elected there would have to be tough conversations,” Jefferson said. “I want to work with the industry on finding land that is suitable for data center development, but there are limits. County residents can not sacrifice quality of life.”

Kuhn, who has rapidly expanded his firm's Northern Virginia data center footprint in recent months, agreed with Jefferson’s assertion that developers and the county need to find common ground on where data center builds are acceptable. He blames the fervor of opposition to new projects in the county on existing data center operators who haven't been responsive to community concerns.  

“In Prince William, certain actions and behaviors by a few data center companies in the area have unfortunately created an angst about having data center neighbors,” Kuhn said. “Unfortunately, we've had a couple of data center providers that have not responded in a timely manner or appropriately to complaints, and that has left a bad taste in a number of the communities with respect to data centers as a whole.” 

Regardless of the root of local resistance, groups like the Coalition to Protect Prince William County that have led organized opposition to data center projects have directed particular ire at Wheeler, the outgoing chair, who they contend has been the strongest advocate for expanding the data center industry’s presence in the county. They are hopeful her departure will dramatically change how the board approaches these projects, with previously supportive supervisors realizing that backing data centers may cost them votes. 

“I believe the other supervisors will have an opportunity to see the facts more clearly,” Schlossberg said. “We're hoping that they will not follow the footsteps of the chair, because clearly these are losing policies.”

Wheeler, who has pledged to support Jefferson in the general election, disputes the idea that Tuesday’s results were purely a referendum on data center development. She said Jefferson’s opposition to data centers has been overstated, attributing her upset victory to broader shifts in the county’s political landscape.

“To attribute Tuesday’s outcome only to data centers is to not fully understand the intricacies of the changes that have occurred in Prince William County over the last three and a half years. There has been a shift in the balance of power, with many new people finally having a seat at the table," she wrote in a statement to Bisnow. “My opponent, Deshundra Jefferson, is not anti-data center and has said so. She objected to certain aspects of data center development, not all of it."

Still, this is the second consecutive election in Prince William County that has hinged, at least in part, on attitudes toward data center development. In February, Republican Bob Weir handily defeated Democrat Kerensa Sumers in a special election for the Gainesville District Supervisor seat after a campaign focused largely on limiting data centers in rural areas.

This trend suggests that anxiety around data centers is an effective tool for mobilizing voters. That could spell trouble for data centers well beyond Prince William County. 

“I think what you're going to see is politicians take this up in other locations," Michael Rechtin, a partner in the data center practice at DLA Piper, told Bisnow in February. “I love this industry personally, but you need to start to think more about building in secondary and tertiary markets that are more welcoming and away from populated areas as much as you can get away with.”

CORRECTION, JUNE 26, 11 A.M. ET: A previous version of this story misstated the size of the planned data center project at Hillwood Camping Park. This story has been updated.