In a 5-3 vote, Tuesday, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved hiring a consultant to study and to advise upon building new datacenters in the county. The study would take anywhere from 6 to 9 months.
The vote was approved by all Democrats and opposed by all Republicans on the board.
The vote followed a long and contentious citizens time during which supervisors heard from many citizens in favor of preserving the rural crescent and also some large landowners who want to open the area to development.
A consultant to study issues surrounding datacenters could make it less political and more about finding a win-win for the county- data centers that bring revenue and do no harm.
Supervisors asked that the consultant consider ways to attract datacenters and still preserve green space, be good neighbors, use best practices and apply eco-friendly designs. They should also investigate how datacenters would affect water runoff, national and state parks, viewsheds, residents and local businesses. The consultant will study what other jurisdictions are doing locally and nationally.
The consultant is being asked to look at the county holistically, not only in one area of the county.
Northern Virginia is a datacenter hub. Datacenters are attractive to jurisdiction because they can be taxed but do not require many services such as schools or roads. Prince William County raised the computer and peripheral tax on datacenters up $.15 to $1.50 per $100 value. That rate will gradually increase until it reaches $200 in 2025.
The controversy comes with keeping datacenters in the appropriate places. Many supporters of the rural crescent are concerned that datacenters are making incursions into the county’s most protected green areas. Supervisors already approved one controversial datacenter build near Prince William Forest Park on March 16.
Now another data storage company has enticed large landowners along Pageland Lane, near the Manassas Battlefield, to sell their land. They could get a better deal from the datacenter than they could selling off their farms in 10-acre parcels as per the 1999 rural crescent zoning laws. Many farms have been held for generations with families waiting for a day when the rural crescent opens up to development.
At the last board meeting, Occoquan Supervisor Kenny Boddye-D recommended not making any rash decisions about datacenters but funding a study. That way, they could take time to consider their various concerns and ways to mitigate them. That motion received unanimous support.
This week Boddye said he approved of the work the Planning Department had done in their hiring proposal.
However, Republican supervisors were not too keen on the study this time around. Gainesville Supervisor Pete Candland-R and Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson-R seem to only like the study as a delay tactic, preferring the county continue to adhere to the existing Datacenter Overlay District.
That district was created with stakeholder input in 2016. It helped protect rural residents following the Amazon fiasco when they had to convince the State Corporation Commission to bury massive powerlines they did not want through their neighborhood.
Nonetheless, realizing it would pass, Candland and Lawson offered the most direction on what the consultant must consider. Lawson said she wants to make sure they look closely at the environmental and economic impacts, “if we are going to put data centers into Pageland Lane and make it datacenter alley.”
She asked the consultant to consider green space, viewshed, water run-off, and tourism to national parks. She also suggested they look at considering failed commercial areas for datacenters. Candland asked that ought to receive updates on the study mid-way through.
“Why should we pay for a consultant?” asked Coles Supervisor Yesli Vega-R, noting they will be paying $120,000 to someone from the outside rather than doing the study in house with existing staff.
Parag Agrawal, Director of Planning, said they have to work within new sustainability guidelines and they just do not have the expertise. County Executive Chris Martino said that staff is already stretched too thin.
Candland said everyone needs to realize that in 1999 the board “picked winners and losers." “We’re doing the same thing now," he said. He objected to the idea they heard again and again that Pageland Lane is no longer rural due to traffic as that is not the measure of a rural area.
Chair Ann Wheeler-D made it clear that the motion is about hiring a consultant not opening the rural crescent to datacenter. “Sometimes people just get confused.”
Neabsco Supervisor Victor Angry-D said he thinks getting the consultant is the right move to take a “good look” at everyone’s concerns.
Lawson said she appreciates everyone wants to slow down and take a good look at the issues, but she won’t be supporting the consultant.
“Our obligation is to protect our residents, their homes and their quality of life,” she said. “I don’t think it’s our obligation to find as much land as possible for a particular industry.”