When the Past Becomes a Roadblock, Future Generations Suffer

PW Perspective posted letter today written by Nicki Bland, local Pageland Resident. It is extremely well written and sheds valuable insight into the realities of our county and refutes the recent letter written by Ken Burns. We have copied to entire letter below:

Recently, Ken Burns, an award-winning filmmaker, sent a letter to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors stating his opposition to a proposal to allow data centers adjacent to (not in) Manassas National Battlefield Park. Mr. Burns lives in Walpole, New Hampshire, 495 miles from the Manassas Battlefield, and therefore it is not a criticism to say that from this remote view, he is not privy to the entirety of the situation. It would be unfortunate should our local elected officials place a greater value on the name recognition of Mr. Burns by ignoring the pleas for fairness in land use policy and investment in the local economy being made by the very people, anonymous as they may look when compared to Mr. Burns, who these elected officials took an oath to serve. When this vote is taken, Mr. Burns will continue to make films in New England, while the residents of Pageland Lane and the people of Prince William County will live with the decision made by the Board to either move Prince William forward or to keep it shackled to its past.

Through the hard work of citizens and elected officials, Prince William County has transformed itself from the place people moved because they couldn’t afford better to a place people move because it is better. We have invested a tremendous amount of time and treasure into becoming a forward-looking community, and now is not the time to stop that innovation by turning our gaze backwards. The PW Digital Gateway proposal would allow data centers on land adjacent to the Park Service land – similar to that which is currently under construction at Gainesville Crossing. The Park Service does not own the land in the CPA area; in fact it is precluded by federal law from owning all but 9.8 acres of it, and at some point, this land will be developed.

As a renowned and respected documentary filmmaker, Mr. Burns, in his documentaries, has been fair showing opposing sides of a story. However, before sending his op-ed piece, he failed to engage with the residents of Pageland Lane in order to get a balanced view. It is disappointing that his opinion piece is based solely on the “facts” and views from special interest groups and none of the farmers and residents who live there. We are the people who have tended this land, paid the taxes on it, and invested in our county’s future. We see the approval of the PW Digital Gateway as the next step in helping to move our county forward towards a brighter future.

Loudoun County has modeled the success of having a diverse economy of high-paying jobs, a growing data center industry, and some of the most valuable personal real estate in the nation. As residents of western Prince William County, we have had a front-row seat to the economic boom happening just across our neighboring border. Like much of the country during the pandemic, unemployment numbers have increased in Prince William County. Too many of those who are employed must leave our county for work and endure long commutes on crowded roads. We need to invest in infrastructure which has for far too long lagged behind our neighbors. We need new and improved schools, more teachers, and better educational opportunities for our children. The hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue these data centers will realize for the county will help us meet all these needs and more. Data centers are low rise and bring less traffic than many uses while providing high-paying jobs for our county residents.

While some will say otherwise, this land will be developed someday. The question now is for what use will the land be developed and will that development add to our economic development or place more strain on our already over taxed system? Housing would flood the county’s school systems and distribution centers would put thousands of tractor trailers on the roads every day. Our proposed plan to bring data centers, restricted in height (shorter than the current transmission lines), buffered by trees to protect the Park Services’ view shed (as the Park Services’ own plan currently requires), resulting in far less traffic than other potential uses, will bring the county game-changing increases in tax revenue, local jobs, and opportunity for all county residents.

If we want to use history as a barometer to judge this development, we should look at what has occurred next to other historic battlefields: Vicksburg National Battlefield has a Motel 6, Super 8, Hampton Inn and Popeye’s adjacent; Fredericksburg has a UPS Customer Center across the street; Gettysburg National Military Park has a McDonalds; Wendy’s, KFC and Best Western at its doors; and Lexington & Concord Battlefield (Minuteman National Park) has Hanscom Air Force Base adjacent – the busiest aviation airport in America. There are some who will respond that these projects should be a warning, and we agree. Unlike these projects, the data center projects in Prince William would leave hundreds of feet of buffers with thick trees and more, to protect, not harm, the battlefield view shed. Further, the data center industry is at the forefront of environmental protection through its carbon-footprint reducing technology. These data centers will be good neighbors to the battlefield, with the juxtaposition of past and future sitting side-by-side as a deeper lesson of how this country has worked to overcome its past as it builds a brighter tomorrow.

In many Southern states, there is a fetishization of the Civil War, as though they have never left the parlor in Appomattox where Lee surrendered to Grant. It is not hyperbole to say that there is not an inch of land in this country that does not have a story to tell, and those stories are important. For this reason, it is worthy, fair, and long overdue for areas of Prince William, like Thoroughfare and Batestown, to be recognized and honored. However, it is also wrong for the first majority-minority community in Virginia to insist that the people of color, who largely live in the eastern end of the county, continue to carry a heavier than necessary tax burden, send their children to overcrowded and under-funded schools, and seek employment at jobs with intolerable commutes so that people in the western part of the county don’t have to endure a data center being placed next to the sanctified battlefield of the Confederacy’s epic quest to preserve its peculiar institution.

The Manassas Battlefield should be preserved, and it has been. It is federally protected land that has been visited by millions. However, as a lesson of the past, it is static. In the age of remote learning, lessons are beamed into the homes and classrooms of students across the country. Children who may never have the opportunity to visit the Manassas Battlefield will have more options to learn about it, be it from online texts or streaming Ken Burns films, but only if we have the online capacity to forward those lessons to those students.

Ken Burns has done much to tell the stories we share as Americans, both the painful and the powerful parts, and his opinion is valuable. However, he is one man speaking on an issue from hundreds of miles away. We, the residents of Prince William County, are working to create opportunity for our nearly half a million residents right here at home.

Nicki Bland

Pageland Resident

Read the letter here: When the Past Becomes a Roadblock, Future Generations Suffer - PW Perspective

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