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December 8, 2021

Prince William approves 6 data centers at Gainesville

The data center complex would stand across Route 29 from the Virginia Gateway shopping center, just south of Interstate 66 in Gainesville.
Haymarket and Gainesville are being engulfed with data centers, transmission lines and substations.
— Karen Sheehan, Coalition to Protect Prince William County director
By Nolan Stout

After a little bit of controversy, Prince William County officials have approved a new data center project along Interstate 66 in Gainesville.

During its meeting Tuesday, the county board of supervisors voted, 6-2, to approve a rezoning and special-use permit for the project. Supervisors Pete Candland (R-Gainesville) and Yesli Vega (R-Coles) cast the dissenting votes.

The 102-acre property, owned by Southview 66 LLC and Gainesville JM LC, is bounded by I-66, U.S. 29, state Route 55 and Catharpin Road. It lies across Route 29 from the Virginia Gateway shopping center.

The proposal, dubbed the I-66 and U.S. 29 Technology Park, is for six rectangular data centers with a 50-foot landscape buffer around the property.

A 5-acre portion of the property will be rezoned from agriculture to business, and the special-use permit will allow data center uses outside of the county’s Data Center Opportunity Zone overlay district. The land is about 2,500 feet outside of the overlay district.

The company also amended the conditions of a previous rezoning on the entirety of the property to allow up to 2.89 million square feet of data center uses. The existing conditions allow up to 1.13 million square feet of permitted commercial uses.

The developer will contribute $1.78 million to the county for its impact on water quality and emergency services.

The developer estimated that construction would support 7,600 to 14,200 jobs and generate $30 million to $57 million in tax revenue. Once completed, the project is expected to support 500 to 630 jobs and $34 million to $65 million in annual tax revenue.

As supervisors discussed the proposal Tuesday, Mr. Candland asked why the developer was proposing a $500,000 monetary contribution to the county to support affordable housing when the project had no relation to housing.

The proposed contribution was added to the application after the October planning commission meeting, when the panel could not reach an agreement for a recommendation on the proposal. Mr. Candland was uneasy because the contribution didn’t offset a direct impact of the project and the optics were suspicious.

“I’m really struggling to see the correlation that something of this significance has with this project,” Mr. Candland said.

Attorney John Foote, speaking on behalf of the applicant, said Virginia code allows developers to submit conditions, or proffers, with development proposals unrelated to their immediate impact if they desire.

After a public hearing, Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R-Brentsville) continued to press Mr. Foote about the proposed contribution, saying it seemed illegal for the county to accept it.

“There is no relation whatsoever of your application to a half-a-million-dollar proffer on affordable housing,” she said. “It does not feel kosher to me.”

Ms. Lawson continued to press Mr. Foote and asked him to remove the contribution, but he declined. Ms. Lawson asked County Attorney Michelle Robl for her advice on the proffer, and Ms. Robl said it was legal. Ms. Lawson was starting to get heated with Mr. Foote when Ms. Robl said the discussion was better suited for a closed session.

The board abruptly entered closed session and emerged 30 minutes later. After a few questions of the applicant and staff, the board voted to approve the project but without accepting the contribution for affordable housing.

Before the board vote, 11 people spoke against the project, expressing a range of concerns from power availability to growing frustration that the county is considering proposals outside of the overlay district.

The board voted in May to spend $120,000 to hire a consultant to study areas to expand the data center district along high-transmission power lines. The overlay district is currently 10,000 acres, designated in 2016 to support data center development by reducing regulatory hurdles.

“We don’t need data centers,” said Carol Czarkowski. “There are a lot of them that are vacant already in the overlay.”

Karen Sheehan, of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, said the county needs a cohesive strategy on data centers before they take over the western end.

“Haymarket and Gainesville are being engulfed with data centers, transmission lines and substations,” she said.
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