County staff in Prince William County, Virginia, have recommended against giving the go-ahead for two massive data center projects.

As reported by Inside NoVA, Prince William County staff on Friday issued recommendations that the Planning Commission deny all three rezonings associated with the proposed PW Digital Gateway.

QTS and Compass are proposing to develop thousands of acres of greenfield land in Manassas to accommodate tens of millions of sq ft of data center development. Site plans suggest more than 30 buildings could be constructed over the lifetime of the project.

PW gateway - Piedmont Environmental Council
– Piedmont Environmental Council

Staff rejected the applications largely because of the lack of information provided by developers. They pointed out that many of the documents submitted by the developers “contain technical errors, are contradictory, and contain nondescript verbiage, that may make enforcement of some of the proffers difficult.”

Information on the building footprint, elevation, and site layout for each application was reportedly lacking.

Staff also said the project is not in alignment with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, despite amendments made to the document last year to pave the way for the Digital Gateway.

“The proposed rezoning is not favorably aligned with the County’s Strategic Plan goals associated with sustainable growth,” staff said of all three applications.

At-Large Board Chair Ann Wheeler, who had been a proponent of the development, told Inside NoVA: “Am I surprised the planning department recommended denial of the Digital Gateway? Not really, I think it was expected. Given the magnitude of the project, which has tremendous scope and vision, and the length of time under review, I am not surprised there may be outstanding issues.”

She continued: “That said, it is very possible that the concerns of planning staff are surmountable. It is ultimately up to the applicants to address any issues and work with the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors regarding these concerns. But I want to remind the public that this is not just a planning exercise, but a transformational project for Prince William County as a whole, positively affecting generations to come.”

The next Planning Commission public hearing is on November 8, and the expected Board of Supervisors public hearing and vote is scheduled for December 12.

DCD has reached out to QTS and Compass for comment.

Update: A Compass spokesperson told DCD:

"While we are disappointed in their recommendation, we appreciate Prince William County staff’s feedback on our rezoning application. We have amended our application to address County staff’s concerns and look forward to sharing those changes and discussing staff’s specific comments in detail at the November 8 Planning Commission hearing. Our most recent discussions with County staff regarding our changes have been positive, and we expect a positive result with the Planning Commission."

“We are grateful to the Planning Commission and the County’s dedicated staff for their continued efforts and partnership. We are confident that our major concessions to the County directly respond to that feedback,” added QTS director of public policy and economic development, Nick Blessing. “It is our top priority to work productively with the County to address community concerns and advance the Digital Gateway, which will boost tax revenues and support the County’s educational and public safety priorities.”

Another twist in the PW Gateway saga

Reports of a PW Digital Gateway surfaced in 2021, originally as an 800-acre development later tied to QTS. However, more landowners joined and the proposal expanded to include some 2,133 acres of the county's "rural crescent" for data centers.

Local landowner Mary Ann Ghadban spearheaded the initial efforts to assemble the land parcels for sale, telling DCD she decided to sell up after a transmission line was erected through the area and the development green light was given to CorScale’s nearby campus.

Almost all the PW Gateway land is set to be developed by Compass and QTS, which are looking to rezone and develop on around 800 acres each. A letter from NOVEC in a previous staff report suggests the project could total more than 1,000MW.

The gateway project has been controversial and unpopular with a number of local residents on environmental grounds, the impact on the local rural area, and the proximity to the Civil War-era Manassas Battlefield. Opposition groups have been critical of a lack of engagement from developers and even held unacknowledged protests outside QTS’ existing data center in Manassas.

Since the county voted to approve a comprehensive plan change last year that paves the way for the project, multiple lawsuits have been filed, and some lawmakers have looked to stymie the project with new proposed regulations.

More recently, QTS accused some landowners of jeopardizing the whole project and filed a lawsuit claiming they were intentionally refusing to provide documents needed by the company. A district court judge sided with the developers, saying the land sale agreements remain valid and landowners have no basis to terminate their contracts.

Lawyers for QTS said during hearing that the properties in question were integral to the PW Digital Gateway as they were to hold two substations.

“If those substations have to be moved, this entire project is gone. It’s done. We’re over. The plan does not work without those two properties, period,” QTS lawyers said.