‘Digital Gateway’ Threatens to Overwhelm Manassas Battlefield
Outrageous proposal would shoehorn largest data center campus on Earth between a National Battlefield and State Forest
Prince William County is on the cusp of approving a massive data center campus in the narrow corridor between the western border of Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Robinson State Forest. A Comprehensive Plan Amendment clearing the way for this type of intensive land use across more than 2,100 acres was approved by the county Board of Supervisors in late 2022 – despite overwhelming public opposition and authoritative testimony by the American Battlefield Trust and its preservation partners. Now, the county Board of Supervisors is moving towards a lame duck approval of specific rezoning applications, which will clear the way for construction of this outrageous proposal. 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 yet. On November 8, following a 21-hour marathon hearing, the Prince William County Planning Commission recommended denial of all three rezoning. The final decision now moves to the Board of Supervisors, which has scheduled its discussion and vote for December 12.
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.
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.
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!
Despite being on the verge of final votes, 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 seems set on steamrolling ahead, going so far as to schedule all three hearings for one night and hold no internal work sessions on the subject.
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.
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.