Return to Bull Run: Pumping the Brakes on Data Center Construction

by James Wyatt Whitehead, V

Conflict rages yet again on the site of two major Civil War Battles, Manassas National Battlefield Park, in Prince William County, Virginia. This is nothing new to Northern Virginia residents who can recall the rally cry of “Save the Battlefield.” In 1988, developers fought and lost the battle to build a 1.2 million square-foot mall on property essential to the core of Manassas Battlefield. In 1993, the Walt Disney Company proposed building a 3,000-acre history theme park in nearby Haymarket, Virginia. Preservationists effectively stonewalled the idea and Disney retreated in fear of losing a coveted positive public image.

The Battle of Manassas rages yet again in 2023. This time the antagonist is the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. In November 2022, the board approved on a 5-2 vote a change in zoning rules that would permit the construction of data centers. The property in question is adjacent to the western border of the battlefield. The current plan for the Prince William Digital Gateway encompasses 2,139 acres of land.

So far, no site plans have been submitted for approval, but that is the next step in bringing data centers directly next to Manassas National Battlefield. Local residents remain divided on the issue. A 14-hour public hearing on the PW Digital Gateway Plan yielded arguments in favor of preservation of historic land and a rebuttal in favor of potential tax benefits to the county treasury.

Preservation reinforcements are on the way! State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) offered Senate Bill 1078. The proposed bill specifically states that data centers cannot be built within one mile of national parks, state parks, and other historically significant sites. The bill also includes a measure to study the impact data centers may have on water resources and carbon emissions. Petersen also filed Joint Senate Resolution 240 that tasks the Department of Energy to study the impact of data center development upon the resources of the Commonwealth. The bill has a long and winding road ahead and will likely evolve with many amendments.

In a recent interview, Petersen offered, “What can go wrong? I really just wanted to pump the brakes on this (data center development).”

Petersen should be commended for bringing the debate of data center development in Virginia to Capitol Square in Richmond. The consequences and benefits of data centers should be scrutinized and balanced against sensible preservation of historic and cultural resources that are vital to all Virginians.

James Wyatt Whitehead V is a retired Loudoun County history teacher.