A cannon at Manassas National Battlefield Park under a vivid orange-purple sky.

Manassas National Battlefield Park, Va.

Buddy Secor

‘Digital Gateway’ Threatens to Overwhelm Manassas Battlefield

Outrageous proposal would shoehorn largest data center campus on Earth between a National Battlefield and State Forest

On December 13, 2023, Prince William County’s board of supervisors approved plans for the massive Digital Gateway complex, a data center campus in the narrow corridor between the western border of Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Robinson State Forest. After a 27-hour meeting that included public comment from hundreds of area residents, the final vote in favor was 4-3, with one abstention.  Click here to see a rendering of what would be the largest data center campus proposal in the world – including its relationship to Trust-protected land!

But we aren’t done fighting. On January 12, the American Battlefield Trust joined nine local residents in filing a lawsuit that asks the Circuit Court for Prince William County to overturn the trio of rezonings granted in violation of Virginia Code by the lame duck County Board of Supervisors last month.

Save Manassas from Massive Data Centers
Prince William Digital Gateway Data Center Map
Chinn Ridge at Second Manassas

Global Data Center Capital

Data centers, large industrial complexes function as the backbone of the modern cloud-based internet, are an increasing threat to historic landscapes across Virginia. They require massive quantities of energy and water to function and surrounding communities face significant issues related to their construction and operation. Learn more about the threat posed by data centers on historic landscapes. 

Thanks to a confluence of geography, state legislation and local zoning decisions, Virginia has become the data center capital of the world. Only a few years ago they were concentrated in nearby Loudoun County – but now they are now spreading like locusts throughout Northern Virginia. As of the summer of 2023, the Trust is engaged with proposals for data centers on or adjacent to significant Virginia battlefields, including Brandy Station, Deep Bottom, Glendale, Manassas, North Anna, the Wilderness and more. 

First Manassas Viriginia Attacks
A historic house and monument on Second Manassas Battlefield
[12:23 PM] Colleen Cheslak Captions/credit:  Aerial view of Northern Virginia's sprawling development. David Duncan.  Cannon sits on the Second Manassas Battlefield at the "Deep Cut." James Carter.

Prince William Digital Gateway

The scale of the data center monstrosity poised for construction at the edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park is mid-boggling.

Prince William Digital Gateway Data Center Map
 A rendering of what would be the largest data center campus proposal in the world – including its relationship to Trust-protected land! Click here to enlarge.

This area would be covered with up to 34 data center buildings reaching to nearly 100’ in height – a total footprint three times the size of Disneyland and four times the size of the Pentagon. This build-out would require at least 12 substations and consume roughly 3 gigawatts (GW) of energy, equivalent to the power used by 750,000 homes – roughly 5 times the number of households currently in Prince William County! 

Read the call to action from Trust President David Duncan and Manassas Battlefield Trust President Scott Neese published by the Prince William Times on September 7.

The plans before the County are half-baked at best, lacking clarity on final design and making only minimal attempts at viewshed impact analysis. Preservation advocates had to assemble our own comprehensive rendering of the full project because none was otherwise available. Moreover, no accommodation for the extensive power line infrastructure that this project would necessitate has been articulated by the developers. 

Responding to these same failings in the proposal, County Planning staff have recommended denial of the applications, citing insufficient documentation and scrutiny. Despite this, the Board of Supervisors has voted in favor of it.

A Long, Fraught Fight

Sadly, this is far from the only instance of lack of transparency and due diligence that the county has shown throughout this process. Since it was first unveiled in July 2021, the proposal has been a lightning rod for controversy.  The threat it represents landed Manassas on Preservation Virginia’s annual list of the Commonwealth’s most endangered historic sites in 2022. Opposition from the preservation and conservation community has been constant and consistent, with voices rising from organizations, including the Manassas Battlefield Trust, Journey Through Hallowed Ground, Piedmont Environmental Council, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Prince William Conservation Network, as well as the American Battlefield Trust and local landowner organizations.

In November 2022, the Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 in favor of a Comprehensive Plan Amendment after an all-night hearing in which hundreds spoke out against the proposal. This was in clear opposition to public opinion: a May 2023 poll by the National Parks Conservation Association found 86% of Northern Virginia residents, a percentage consistent across party lines, wanted to prohibit data centers within 1 mile of National Parks and historic sites! The same poll hinted that it was going to be a priority at the polls, with 96 percent saying they would support elected officials who take a strong stand protecting these sites from data centers. This was borne out in the 2023 primary season, in which many pro-data center candidates lost their seats to newcomers. 

A photograph of trees on the Second Manassas Battlefield
Battlefield of Bull Run or First Manassas Marker

Brawner Farm

Manassas National Battlefield Park was established in 1940 to commemorate the two major Civil War battles – First Battle of Manassas, the first major land battle of the war, and the Second Battle of Bull Run, which paved the way for Lee’s first invasion of the North. The Battlefield was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Visitors come to Manassas National Battlefield each year to experience the landscape as it would have appeared during the Civil War while learning more about its history, and to hike or ride on the more than 50 miles of trails in the 5,000-acre national park. 

Prince William Digital Gateway would be located at the western border of Manassas National Battlefield Park, along historic Pageland Lane. This area of the battlefield, including the restored Brawner Farm, played a central role in the Second Battle of Manassas. On August 28, 1862, fighting in this area and the nearby Deep Cut, an unfinished railroad bed, featured some of the most famous units of the entire Civil War – the Union Iron Brigade and the Confederate Stonewall Brigade.