The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As data centers bloom, a century-old African American enclave is threatened

Nathan Grayson helps his aunt Willetta Grayson, 91, walk to his car in Haymarket, Va. (Jason Andrew/For The Washington Post)

For at least 118 years, the descendants of Livinia Blackburn Johnson have lived on the land in Northern Virginia that she and some other freed slaves acquired under an 1866 federal law that allowed them to own property.

As the nearby town of Haymarket grew around them, Johnson's heirs carved out their own community of modest houses amid the tall pine trees along Carver Road, about 45 miles southwest of Washington.

Now, in a case of Virginia’s future ambitions colliding with its Civil War legacy, the Prince William County neighborhood of mostly elderly African American homeowners is being threatened by plans for a 38-acre computer data center that will be built nearby. The project requires the installation of 100-foot-high towers carrying 230,000-volt power lines through their land.

The State Corporation Commission authorized Dominion Virginia Power in late June to seize land through eminent domain to make room for the towers. For the roughly 30 siblings, distant cousins and some unrelated neighbors who live on about 50 acres along Carver Road, the action means losing the place where they and their ancestors began their long march into the middle class.

“We’ve had good lives here,” said Charles Moore, 83, a great-great-grandson of Johnson who grew up and raised his five children on four acres near a church graveyard where his sisters, mother and grandparents are buried. “I don’t want to go nowhere.”

The two warehouse-sized data center buildings that VAData, a subsidiary of Amazon, plans to build in Haymarket are part of a wave of data center construction that, industry supporters say, will help strengthen the local economy. (Amazon is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, owner of The Washington Post.)

Data centers in Northern Virginia — the industry’s national hub — help generate about $5.7 billion in economic activity a year in the region and bring a few hundred million dollars more in annual taxes, according to a 2016 Northern Virginia Technology Council report.

The mammoth, humming facilities feed Facebook profiles, Google searches and scores of federal agency websites, handling at least 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, industry groups say.

Their growing presence has stirred resistance in communities, particularly in cases where a new data center requires adding power lines and cooling systems to meet energy demands. On average, data centers use enough electricity to light up at least 5,000 homes, according to Dominion.

In Loudoun County, home to 70 data centers, complaints about noise and proposed routes for new power lines drove county supervisors last year to require input from residents before facilities are approved. Data center developers must create noise buffers and vary architectural styles as well.

Fairfax County, home to 43 data centers, adopted similar rules last year and requires landscaping for storm water management.

Prince William had no rules in place governing data center construction when the VAData project was launched in 2014 on land the company purchased for $8.6 million. In 2015, the Board of Supervisors created a special zoning category for data centers that aims to protect areas where new power lines would negatively affect surrounding homes, historical resources and local businesses.

“This is a case that we have learned a lot from,” said County Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R-Brenstville), who represents the Carver Road area and is working with the county attorney to explore ways to stop the route in court. “I certainly want to be a county that welcomes data centers, but the caveat is that they need to go in appropriate locations.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the VAData project because the land sits on the site of the Civil War Battle of Buckland Mills and is surrounded by wetlands, which VAData is seeking to fill as part of the construction. But the federal agency is not considering the potential impacts of the six-mile transmission route Dominion wants to build between Gainesville and a substation planned just outside of Haymarket. It would support a larger data center complex on the VAData site, where one data center is already operating. VAData shares a Seattle address and phone number with Amazon, whose officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Set in a remote area off Lee Highway, the Carver Road neighborhood became the chosen route by default, after other options were either deemed too costly or torpedoed by opposition from local homeowners associations.

Initially, Dominion — which says the power line is also needed to serve the area's growing population — favored building along a freight railroad line or along Interstate 66, either aboveground or through a "hybrid" route with power lines buried in some places.

The State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, rejected the Interstate 66 options, saying the hybrid route was too expensive and the aboveground option would affect too many homes.

The commission and Dominion favored the railroad route, which would cost $55 million, compared with $167 million for the hybrid I-66 option.

But residents in neighboring Somerset Crossing, a subdivision of spacious Colonial-style homes and townhouses, vehemently opposed that idea, arguing that local land values would plummet. Their homeowners association found a way to block it, by transferring its ownership of 55 acres of wetlands near the railroad line to the county government.

Under federal law, only private property is subject to eminent domain.

Jim Napoli, the association’s president, said the transfer was made to protect the land as a nature preserve. “When the railroad route was put on the map, we looked at what the easement said, and lo and behold, the developer had failed to put the proper easement over that property to protect it,” Napoli said.

This year, the SCC — reluctant to choose the Carver Road route — ordered Dominion to seek Prince William County’s permission to use the land so it could build the power lines along the railroad route.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected that request in June, a failed gambit to force the SCC to embrace the I-66 hybrid option.

Homeowner groups now say they will lobby the state to reconsider that route, arguing that high-voltage lines along Carver Road would pass dangerously close to homes and schools.

The lines probably would pass directly through the site of the three-bedroom house where Nathan Grayson — a third-generation descendant of Johnson — grew up and now lives with his wife and two adult sons.

“Things are running over on top of us,” Grayson said, seething.

He works in maintenance at the nearby Stonewall Golf Club in Gainesville and keeps a giant cardboard chart of his family tree inside his home, based on local land records, old photos and generations of oral history.

While Johnson tops that chart, little is known about her, other than that she was born two years before the Civil War ended and, family members say, lived inside her owner’s plantation house.

Prince William land records show that she paid $30 in 1899 to buy three acres near Carver Road from Jane C. Tyler, daughter of the land’s original owner, John W. Tyler, who died in 1862. Her descendants say she eventually owned much more.

In 1877, the family helped found Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, which remained at the center of the community until an arson fire destroyed its roof five years ago.

Today, the Johnson, Grayson and Moore descendants who live off Carver Road work for the federal government, the county police department or as housing contractors.

Occasionally, dozens of them meet on the property for family celebrations or cookouts, pitching horseshoes in the fields and listening to old songs.

“Most of us have always kept together,” said Willetta “Dolly” Grayson, 91, at one recent gathering, sitting near her 4-year-old great-grandnephew as he played in the grass. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to stick together.”