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Prince William County’s draft plan for the Prince William Digital Gateway envisions a 2,100-acre data center corridor next to the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Memorial State Forest that would allow up to 27.6 million square feet of data center space – likely spread across dozens of buildings – while also dedicating about 800 acres to new parks and trails, protecting historic assets and mitigating harmful impacts on wildlife and the Occoquan Reservoir.
But some of those goals are already being chipped away by data center developers seeking permission to build new data centers within the site.
That’s because included in the Prince William County Planning Commission’s Sept. 15 pre-dawn vote to advance a comprehensive plan amendment for the new data center corridor were numerous changes detailed in a 31-page letter from lawyers representing QTS and Compass, two data center operators seeking to rezone more than 800 acres each in the corridor for new data centers.
Among other things, the letter seeks to reduce a proposed 60-acre park planned to separate the data centers from the battlefield by 15 to 20 acres. It also eliminates one of two wildlife corridors in the study area and takes out language stipulating that wildlife corridors should be a minimum of 300 feet in width – meaning no particular size will be required.
The QTS and Compass letter also removes automatic protections for a suspected Civil War mass burial site and the “Pageland II” homesite, two of several historic resources in the area that county staff’s plan recommends be preserved “in place.”
As justification for weakening developers’ obligations regarding the historic sites, the letter says the county “unreasonably and prematurely assumes” that Pageland II and the Civil War mass burial site are worth preserving. It notes the Pageland II homesite has been deemed ineligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and it calls the mass burial site “an alleged, as-never-documented, unlocated mass burial site.”
“The applicants propose language … to require a detailed evaluation of each of the identified elements to determine whether they exist and, if so, how best to honor or preserve them,” the letter says, adding: “Absent such an analysis, the CPA essentially proposes to preserve an unproven allegation or unsubstantiated memory, rather than an actual resource.”
The Compass and QTS letter also calls for loosening stormwater management regulations meant to keep polluting runoff from entering tributaries to the Occoquan Reservoir, the main source of drinking water for about 800,000 residents of Northern Virginia.
The letter says the county’s stormwater policies for the area are “confusing and unworkable” due to the area’s rocky and clay soils. The letter says the county should drop the standard of “no net [stormwater] runoff” from the new data center corridor and remove wording that says data centers should “contain potential pollutants on site.”
“This concept of ‘no net runoff’ is an unrealistic performance standard, particularly in this area of Prince William,” the letter says. “Worse, an unintended consequence of ‘no net run-off’ is a degradation to the very streams (Little Bull Run, Catharpin) that we all seek to protect – those streams need water to remain healthy. Depriving these important waterways of a meaningful flow harms the wildlife, water quality and vitality of the very streams we treasure.”
Letter not discussed during the public hearing
Neither the letter – nor its proposed changes to the CPA – were discussed during the Planning Commission’s seven-hour, all-night public hearing on the PW Digital Gateway that preceded the 5 a.m. vote. It wasn’t until Planning Commissioner Qwendolyn Brown (Neabsco) made a motion to approve the PW Digital Gateway that the existence of the letter came to light.
In her motion, Brown recommended approval of the CPA “with the revisions and clarifications requested by the applicant in a Sept. 9 letter” to the planning commission.
Brown did not explain what the revisions and clarifications were, and her fellow planning commissioners did not ask about them.
The motion passed in a 4-3-1 vote, with Brown and Planning Commission Chair Cynthia Moses-Nedd (Woodbridge) and Commissioners Juan McPhail (Potomac) and Patty Kuntz (at large) voting in favor, while Commissioners Tom Gordy (Brentsville), Richard Berry (Gainesville) and Joe Fontanella (Coles) voted against the recommendation and Robert Perry Jr. (Neabsco) abstained.
In interviews since the vote, Gordy and Fontanella said they were not aware of the letter until Brown made her motion. Both said they later searched their inboxes (which were flooded with hundreds of emails prior to the meeting) and located the letter.
Perry said he did not realize that Brown mentioned a letter before making her motion and hadn’t read it as of Monday night. Perry also said he abstained from the vote because he was left with too many unanswered questions about the data center development, particularly about the costs county taxpayers would bear for its required infrastructure.
Proponents of the Prince William Digital Gateway – a controversial plan to allow a massive n…
Meanwhile, both Moses-Nedd, the planning commission’s chair, and Brown, who made the motion, declined to comment on the letter and its implications.
“I don’t really have a comment to make about that,” Brown said.
“I’m trying to serve the county and the planning commission as its chair as we go through these very difficult decisions,” Moses-Nedd said Monday. “But I’m going to decline to participate in the interview, and I’m going to decline to comment.”
Kuntz, however, said she saw and read the letter before the vote and does not believe its inclusion in the CPA will diminish the county’s policies aimed at protecting the Manassas National Battlefield Park and enhancing open space — despite its elimination of a wildlife corridor and acres of parkland and its loosening of regulations for stormwater runoff and historic resources, among other things.
Kuntz said her understanding is that the particulars mentioned in the QTS and Compass letter are usually hammered out in the rezoning process.
“I think [QTS and Compass] are opening up the discussion of their concerns [with the CPA], and I believe that is what the applicants want to have – a discussion,” Kuntz said. “But our understanding is that all of this is going to be worked out in the rezonings.”
Kuntz also said she believes the data center development is “a good land use” for the area and understands that the wildlife corridor at issue would cut part of the Compass land “in half,” limiting development.
She further said she believes Compass and QTS have been “very forthcoming” with protected open space, despite their removal of a minimum 300-foot width for the remaining wildlife corridor. (Wildlife corridors of at least 500 feet wide were initially requested by the county’s planning staff based on research into migration patterns, but staff said the corridors should be no less than 300 feet.)
Regarding the Civil War mass burial site, Kuntz said she trusts QTS and Compass will take precautions when building in the area with or without a CPA that requires the possible mass burial site to protected in place.
“They will be respectful of any Civil War remains,” Kuntz said. “They have guaranteed me that if any remains are found the digging will stop until the area is fully investigated.”
Lawson: Letter ‘stinks of corruption’
Fontanella and Gordy – two of the three planning commissioners who voted against recommending the CPA – said the planning commission should never have included the revisions in the 31-page letter in the motion because the document was neither shared with the public nor publicly discussed before the vote.
“There are [changes] in there that revert the promises that have been made” by the planning staff, Fontanella said, calling the letter’s changes “significantly different” than the county’s policies for the proposed PW Digital Gateway.
“And I don’t think people really understand the consequences of everything involved,” he added.
Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, and an opponent of the PW Digital Gateway, said she first heard of the letter when Brown made her motion at about 4:45 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, after the all-night meeting. Lawson said she was “foggy” and really wanted to get home but remembers thinking: “What’s that about?”
Lawson said she later learned that even members of the county’s planning staff who led the public hearing – planners David McGettigan and Meika Daus – had not seen the letter before the meeting. Acting Planning Commissioner and Deputy County Executive Rebecca Horner did not answer an email or phone calls seeking comment about the letter Tuesday.
Lawson said that once she read the letter she was “stunned” by its contents. She said she “rejects” all of the QTS and Compass changes to the CPA and believes they “violated” the work the county staff did to mitigate the data centers’ impact on the rural Pageland Lane area.
“Honestly, the worst thing about it is the manner in which it was handled. Honestly, it stinks of corruption,” Lawson said. “And until members of the planning commission speak to this letter, that’s what I’m led to believe.”
Rural crescent activist Elena Schlossberg also blasted the last-minute letter, saying the planning commission’s decision not to share it with the public or even discuss it during the meeting turned the public hearing into a “farcical” and “corrupt” process.
“I don’t know how you write this, but this was f—-ed up,” she added. “How can you not see that this process is being run by the data center industry? For 20 years, I have been involved in land use applications and I have never seen anything like this.”
Schlossberg is executive director of the Coalition to Save Prince William County, which is leading an ongoing effort to recall both Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler (at large) and Supervisor Pete Candland (Gainesville) over their ties to the data center development.
The coalition is opposed to any plan to develop the rural crescent for industrial uses.
“…What happened in the predawn hours could not exemplify our mistrust in these leaders more than what happened at that meeting,” Schlossberg said, adding: “I feel like I’m living in some kind of twilight zone where the experts in preservation and conservation are being ignored and the data centers – the robber barons of the 21st century – are who we’re supposed to trust?”
Data centers’ last-minute letter seeks to weaken county policies for PW Digital Gateway | News
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