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Prince William County’s 2,100-Acre Data Center Plan Clears Key Hurdle After 10-Hour Hearing

A controversial development proposal that could turn Virginia’s Prince William County into a global data center hub cleared a key hurdle early Thursday morning.

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

Following a contentious 10-hour hearing that culminated around 5 a.m. Thursday, Prince William County planning officials voted to recommend a plan that opens more than 2,000 acres near the Manassas Civil War battlefield to data center development.

The proposal, known as the Prince William Digital Gateway, has come under fire from some residents concerned about the impact of large-scale industrial infrastructure in the predominantly rural area. Although the plan still needs approval from the county’s Board of Supervisors, its passage would pave the way for a pair of data center campuses proposed by QTS and Compass Datacenters, and it could permit additional data center build-outs in the county on a scale comparable to neighboring Loudoun County.

“It’s really an economic development initiative to solidify the county’s commercial tax base and create a long-term sustainable revenue source to fund critical community priorities,” Commissioner Qwendolyn Brown told the hearing early Thursday morning. “[PW Digital Gateway] presents an opportunity to transform Prince William County’s future in a profoundly positive way.”

The board’s narrow 4-3 vote in support of PW Digital Gateway represents the first official position by county officials on the controversial project, first proposed in 2021 by developers and a group of landowners.

If approved, the county’s land use master plan would be changed to allow for the rezoning of 2,139 acres extending from the historic Manassas battlefield in the south to Route 234 on its northern boundary — part of a stretch of agricultural, residential and protected forest known as the ‘Rural Crescent.”

Rezoning would allow as much as 27.6M SF of data center buildings within the PW Digital Gateway footprint. By comparison, that’s nearly as much as has been built or is currently under construction in neighboring Loudoun County, the home of what is known as Data Center Alley and the largest data center market in the world. 

If PW Digital Gateway gets final approval from county officials, data center giants QTS and Compass data centers are both poised to move forward with large-scale campuses on a combined 1,636 acres of the contested area. The two projects, which would both still have to undergo rezoning and development review, would build out more than 18M SF of data center space, according to planning documents, and local utilities estimate the total power usage within the  footprint would likely exceed 1,000 megawatts.

Transmission lines running next to the Manassas battlefield, near the proposed Prince William Digital Gateway.

The Digital Gateway plan is the largest in a wave of proposed data center developments that have flooded into Prince William and its neighboring counties in recent months. The potential influx of data centers and their supporting infrastructure has riled some residents and become a subject of heated public debate in county boardrooms and local editorial pages. More than 200 residents spoke at Wednesday evening’s planning board hearing, which lasted for more than 10 hours. 

While supporters of the Digital Gateway point to the tax revenue windfall that would come from data centers, critics argue that the project will irreparably destroy the rural character of the area and blight the landscape around the historic Manassas Civil War battlefield. They also point to a host of environmental concerns, from diminished water quality to noise pollution.

Advocates for the project vigorously reject these claims and say the county’s plan provides adequate protections and far stricter regulations than what developers had hoped. But that has done little to placate many of the opponents who waited hours to lodge their objections early Thursday morning.

“You’re trying to gaslight the community and tell us that it’s environmentalism to industrialize our rural communities,” said Elena Schlossberg, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, addressing supporters of the Digital Gateway Thursday morning. “The Rural Crescent has served as one of the best land use tools to stem the ever-increasing push to turn grass into concrete — it’s what sets us apart from our sister counties.”

Despite the outcome of Thursday morning’s vote, experts say organized opposition from the Coalition to Protect Prince William County and other groups could still derail or significantly delay the PW Digital Gateway. The group has already launched recall campaigns and a federal lawsuit against a pair of county lawmakers who support the project. 

Opponents of the expanding data center industry footprint throughout Northern Virginia have notched some notable, if temporary, victories. Earlier this week, a developer hoping to build 11 new data centers in Prince William County on a site known as the Devlin Technology Park announced the project would be delayed in the face of public opposition. In neighboring Culpeper County, a proposed Amazon Web Services data center was rejected by the county planning board in March, although it was later approved by county supervisors. 

The groundswell of opposition is just the latest sign that while demand for data centers in Northern Virginia is greater than ever, political sentiment may make development increasingly difficult. Developers and investors are taking note. 

“It’s become more sensitive in the last 12 months than it was before,” said Ali Greenwood, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield’s Data Center Advisory Group. “This was always on the radar for developers, but it wasn’t making headlines like it is now. “