Data Center Expansion in Prince William and Its Impact

The expansion of commercial development and data centers within Prince William and Fairfax county has allowed for greater economic prosperity, but with recently increased industrialization, the impacts of acid deposition on water quality have become more of a pressing concern.



The Occoquan Watershed is shared between Prince William and Fairfax, and because it supplies drinking water to 800,000 Northern Virginia residents, both counties have called for a comprehensive study on the PW Digital Gateway and the expansion of the Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District. Landowners in Pageland Lane, Manassas requested to change their land designation from agricultural and estate to technological; this request on 2,133 acres of land has the potential to create 27.6 million feet of data centers. Furthermore, the Board of County Supervisors voted last year to expand the district, with the caveat of updating the Comprehensive Plan and easing its developmental restrictions. These changes in policy and ordinance could pose a significant threat to the health of aquatic ecosystems and the quality of drinking water.


The history of Prince William began with the construction of Shirley highway in 1949; these road expansions resulted in a housing boom in the eastern region of the county and rapid developmental growth that county leaders finally addressed with the Comprehensive Plan in 1998, which established a growth boundary intended to control urban sprawl by separating the county into two sections: the Development Area and the Rural Area, with the transitional ribbon dividing the two sections. The eastern side of the region was designated for commercial and residential development because of the endeavors and construction already taking place. The western and northern sides of PW were already zoned A-1 for agriculture, which meant that the still-rural half of the county was to be undevelopable, with subdivisions being restricted to 10 acres and only rural-appropriate commercial development and low-density housing allowed.


However, with an increasing population and demand for commercialization, county leaders have begun to revise the boundaries within the county. The 2014 Rural Area Preservation Report was conducted on the efficacy of preserving the crescent; to accommodate the need for development, the study recommended multiple strategies for higher density and sprawl in the Rural Crescent which include “rural cluster development, increasing housing density from one dwelling per 10 acres to 5, extending public sewers into transitional ribbons, older residential enclaves, and valley and estate subdivisions, and hook-ups to public sewers when they are readily available.”



Additionally, the proposed digital gateway is a data center corridor along Pageland Lane that would encompass 2,133 acres of open land in the crescent. QTS Realty Trust Inc. filed the first zoning request and covered 812 acres of the project to build 7.9 million feet of data center space. This also impacts the expansion of the Data Center Opportunity Zone Overlay District; the original district was created in 2016 to encompass 10,000 acres of land where data centers could be built and supported with infrastructure already in place, but the BOCS has attempted to permit proliferation with an additional 10,000 acres for data center use. Furthermore, the Comprehensive Plan update would “[replace] “Rural Area” with 55,310 acres of “Agricultural Estate” and “Agricultural and Forrestal,” covering 75,647 acres” (Shaw 2022). These solutions contradict the original purpose of the Comprehensive Plan: to control urban sprawl.


The real-world impact of these policies is the fate of aquatic ecosystems and the quality of drinking water for all of Prince William because of future development. Although commercialization would help businesses make more profit and expand economic growth, the degradation of water systems would occur based on the poorer readings of the development area streams which are located in technology and activity centers.