From horse farms to data farms: How 102 rural landowners came to agree to sell their 1,600 acres to data centers
● By Peter Cary Contributing Writer
● Apr 7, 2022 Updated 15 hrs ago
How it started: Western Prince William County landowners Mary Ann Ghadban, left, and Page Snyder, right, fought development along their rural Pageland Lane for decades. Then, in 2019, they decided to pursue a new data center corridor known as the “PW Digital Gateway.” Within about a year, about 100 of their neighbors followed their lead.
Photo by Peter Cary
“I said ‘What are we gonna do? We’re gonna fight this, right, Mary Ann?’ And she said, ‘No, Mike, we're not fighting it. This is us. This is the farmers.'” Mike Grossman, A resident of Trappers Ridge, in Gainesville, who is among the 102 property owners who have signed contracts to sell their homes and land to data centers.
Quite remarkably, Mary Ann Ghadban and Page Snyder – two Prince William horse farmers turned data farm enthusiasts -- put together a proposal that could forever change Prince William County’s rural landscape. In little more than a year, they assembled a dozen landowners willing to sell their collective 800 acres, found a data center developer willing to buy it and applied for a land-use change with the county to make it happen. But perhaps even more remarkable – but less well known – was the coming together of an even larger group of landowners in the same stretch of rural northwest Prince William County. In well under a year, this group, initially left out of Ghadban’s and Snyder’s plan, grew to encompass 90 landowners with 98 parcels totaling 805 acres. The aggregation of young and old, longtime farmers and McMansion-dwelling newcomers, have all signed contracts to sell their properties to a data center operator, too -- if the county approves the needed land-use and zoning changes to make it a reality.
“It was a remarkable, a Herculean effort,” said Mike Grossman, one of several key residents who managed and led the effort. “We were told by experts, by data center [land] purchasers, by attorneys, that it would never happen.”
The story is even more surprising because it was not a top-down effort, Grossman and others said. There were organizers, and some people played key roles. But the impetus came from the bottom up. “Really it was just grassroots,” said Kenn Knarr, one of the property owners and facilitators. “And everybody kind of came to a consensus. It just gradually grew and grew and grew to the number it's gotten to now.”
‘Guys, we really need to look at this’
The motivation? For some, the idea of selling their land for nearly $1 million an acre was a strong incentive. But others said they just did not want to be left behind -- to wake up one day and find themselves surrounded by a sea of data centers.
Later still, many said they became convinced the data centers were unavoidable, and that they would have to sell out and leave. Some even became vocal advocates of the proposed new digital corridor. More than 30 people, drawn from this and Ghadban’s group, raved about the benefits of a new data center corridor at a citizen forum at Battlefield High School last week.
How it’s going: Some of the 102 rural western Prince William County landowners who have signed contracts to sell their acreage to data centers if the Prince William Board of County Supervisors allows their land to be replanned for industrial uses.
This group attended a community meeting at Battlefield High School on March 31 to speak in support of opening rural land to data centers.
Photo by Peter Cary
Without question, Ghadban and Snyder started the ball rolling. As preservationists, they had fought what they long thought was “the good fight” against development. Both were instrumental in battles to stop a proposed Walt Disney theme park in the early 1990s and the planned Bi-County Parkway 20 years later. But their thinking had shifted when Dominion Energy in 2008 built 500-kilowatt powerlines along Pageland Lane, the road they live on. Ghadban, a commercial developer and real estate broker, says the powerlines cut her farm’s value by 40% and harmed her horses’ health.
And then in 2019, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved a 2.3 million-square-foot data center complex just a mile and a half away. So Ghadban, 68, hired an expert to see if the power lines and the fiber-optic cable along Pageland Lane would interest data center operators. When he reported that they would, she called Snyder, 71, who owns 185 acres across the road as well as other neighbors and said: “Guys, we really need to look at this.”
By March 2021, Ghadban had pulled together 12 different owners with 812 acres in a northern zone and a southern zone off Pageland Lane and announced her intention to try to change their properties’ agricultural and residential land-use designations.
The story made the Prince William Times – labeled “exclusive.” Dori Burner, the operator of a 5-acre stable and polo training center on Pageland Lane, read it – as did her neighbors.
Over the spring, Burner said, she met with neighbors in her indoor arena. She said her first instinct was to protest the proposed change. But on May 7, 2021, Ghadban filed to amend the county’s comprehensive plan to make the underlying land-use designation more data-center friendly. Then, on July 20, 2021, the supervisors voted to study not only Ghadban’s proposal but a larger swath of land between U.S. 29 and Sudley Road for possible new data centers.
That move persuaded Burner, who owns five acres, that a land-use change was likely. The question became how to protect themselves, she said. She thought the answer lay in forming an assemblage that could deal with data center buyers and, especially, would take care of the small landowners. She recalled asking her neighbors at one meeting, “Raise your hand if I can present your land to a data center for a million dollars an acre.” Over time, she said, “Everyone said yes.”
Others went through a similar process. Grossman, 52, a former commercial contractor, lives further to the south in Trappers Ridge, a development of 15 homes on 10-acre lots. In late May, his wife saw a news article about a plan to change their land use. Grossman said he called Ghadban, whom he remembered from the battles over the Bi-County Parkway.
“I said ‘What are we gonna do? We’re gonna fight this, right, Mary Ann?’ And she said, ‘No, Mike, we're not fighting it. This is us. This is the farmers’,” he said.
Ghadban told him that if their land-use proposal were approved, there was a good chance that data centers would be built in their area. Her group saw it as a win-win, for both the landowners, who could sell and get out, and for the county, which could make a tax windfall. She said their rural area had been spoiled, and their quiet Pageland Lane was sure to be turned into a thoroughfare. They might as well embrace progress, she said.
Over chicken at Wi-Not-Stop
Grossman called Kenn Knarr, who lives in Dominique Estates, a neighborhood of high-end homes a mile to the north. Knarr told him that a dozen homeowners in or near his subdivision had already notified the county that they, too, wanted to be part of the county’s data center study zone. The idea, said Grossman, was: “Let's make sure we're included in this area, so we can be part of that conversation.”
As Grossman and his Trappers Ridge neighbors discussed their options, the board of supervisors held their July 20, 2021, meeting where they agreed to enlarge the data center study area. That only got residents who lived in or near that zone talking even more.
J.P. Raflo who lives just west of Pageland Lane, was one of them. “It was kind of, everybody came together and said, ‘What do we want to do?’ You know, like, totally organically,” he said.
Grossman said one day he was at the Wi-Not Stop gas station on Sudley Road in Catharpin buying some chicken when a Pageland Lane neighbor stopped in. They spent the next hour over a chicken lunch discussing the changes afoot.
“And then he went back to his neighborhood. And he started having conversations [with neighbors], and then we had follow-up conversations,” Grossman said. The man, who owns just a small parcel of land, told the county he wanted in, too.
Meanwhile, the 15 homeowners in Grossman’s Trappers Ridge subdivision debated. In early September 2021, they agreed to tell the county they too wanted to be in the study zone. But they were still equivocal.
“They were saying, ‘Let’s make sure we are in the boundary area, but hope it doesn’t happen,’” said Grossman. The bottom line, he said, was “they wanted to reserve their rights.”
People on Haddonfield Lane, north of Trappers Ridge, were talking, too. They called Grossman, who told them what he knew, and 15 Haddonfield Lane residents notified the county they wanted in. Then 19 residents of Catharpin Farms Estates opted in, too. That made 61 landowners. Counting the folks who had been talking to Burner, they were closing in on 90.
On Oct. 1, 2021, the county had published a GIS map of what it considered to be the “PW Digital Gateway” study area. It included not only the area proposed by Ghadban’s group, but also the subdivisions and the lots of individuals who also said they wanted in. To the landowners, this sent a strong signal: The county seemed to be endorsing Ghadban’s proposal.
The landowners say they began to see the handwriting on the wall: Data centers were creeping up from the south; their Pageland Corridor would make an idea data center corridor; and Ghadban’s comprehensive plan amendment application had momentum. Supervisors already had approved data centers outside the county’s designated data center “overlay district,” where a special-use permit is required for such facilities. In December, a traffic study was released that argued that Pageland Lane should be widened no matter what, so they became convinced that change was inevitable. From wanting to be “part of the conversation,” they now wanted to participate in the change.
“In our assemblage, everybody started to say we can get out before this major wave of changes comes in this corridor, which we all believe is going to happen,” Knarr said. “And we can do it in such a way that we're financially in a better position -- or at least equal. And it will be good for the county.”
A photo of traffic backed up on Pageland Lane.
To the north, Burner had enlisted the help of a friend and polo client who is on the board of several tech companies. He already had reached out to data center builders, Burner says, fishing for million-dollar-per-acre offers. By the summer, she says, she had connected with Grossman, Knarr and others. They said, “I heard you're talking to buyers at a million, and we would like to participate,” she said. Others dispute this version of events, but they agree that by late fall all the landowners had joined forces.
Seeking $1 million an acre
After looking at a half-dozen data center builders, Ghadban’s group had picked the one they liked best. It was QTS, a Kansas company with data centers in Ashburn, Manassas and Richmond. Ghadban told Grossman that their buyer might be interested in talking to his assemblage, too.
But the assemblage that Grossman was working with, which by December numbered 90 people and 805 acres, was looking for its own buyer. This would not be easy. There were tiny farms and big farms, ranging from 1.5 to 30 acres. Some people had kids in school; some were anxious to leave; some really did not want to move at all. Some wanted to leave something for their families. Some were deeply in debt from medical bills. Many had mixed feelings. One, according to Grossman, was an environmentalist who decided the good derived from taxing data centers outweighed their environmental harm.
Grossman had agreed to lead the effort to find a data center buyer and hammer out an agreement. “So, we put together a list of these high-level requirements that it would take to keep this entire sandwich together, not knowing if we'd be able to find a buyer that would satisfy all these requirements,” he said.
They did. Three sources close to the deal say they chose Compass Datacenters of Dallas, which was flexible on many important terms. Perhaps most important, the buyer was willing to pay nearly $1 million an acre to all, Burner said, which satisfied the smallest landowners. All 90 landowners have signed contracts agreeing to sell if their terms are met, Grossman said.
Compass is actively working toward filing for a rezoning before Ghadban’s CPA is considered, as QTS already has done, sources said. Compass did not reply to email and telephone requests for comment.
The board of supervisors is expected to take up Ghadban’s CPA sometime this summer. For some landowners, however, the change won’t be easy.
Denise Roberts, who lives in Catharpin, calls her three-bedroom, 1950s rambler on 2.8 acres her dream home. She has a pool and a pond for her pet ducks and geese. She would hate to leave, she said, but she does not want to live in a “sea of data centers.” She said if she sells, she will get more than if she sold her house at market rate, but she insists she will not get rich.
“It has nothing to do with money. Everything comes down to, I do not want to look out my windows and see data centers,” she said. “Right now, I look at cows.”
Reach Peter Cary at firstname.lastname@example.org