The county Planning Commission is considering an application that would allow construction of a data center complex along Goose Creek and Sycolin Road south of Leesburg.
The applicant, H&H Capital Acquisitions of Dallas, TX, proposes to build up to 750,000 square feet of data center space and a utility substation on the property, and has offered to construct turn lanes and sidewalks along Sycolin Road, refrain from using the water on the site for cooling, agree to setbacks from the creek and wetland mitigation, and save an easement for a future Goose Creek Trail.
Colleen Gillis, of the law firm Cooley LLP, said the project, by Compass Data Centers, is “very different from the other data centers that we see up and down Loudoun County Parkway.” She described it as water-free, future-ready, and repeatable.
“Because we are a water-free facility—we only use it for humidification—we use less than 1 percent of the water that would otherwise be consumed by a similarly sized data center,” Gillis said.
The project has drawn opposition from both neighbors and environmental groups.The project would rezone a low-density residential area to office park zoning. It would also encroach on a rare ecological environment, a type of rocky, mossy area the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage calls a “Northern Piedmont mafic barren.” According to the DCR, the mafic barren on the property is one of only 10 worldwide and the northernmost in existence.
Brian Metras, who lives nearby, said the area is “pristine,” separated from other development by bridges and the Dulles Greenway. And he said as a project manager who has built data centers, he knows those projects include large generators, the potential for fuel spills, and other unsightly problems.
“I was very fortunate several years ago to spend a day on the river with a former planning commissioner, Bob Klancher,” Metras said. “Bob and I spent the entire day on the river, and he said this is a gem we need to protect.”
And Gem Bingol, of the Piedmont Environmental Council, pointed out that the property is upstream of a Loudoun Water intake for drinking water.
“So while I think that the globally rare community is important, I think public drinking water is a way more important issue,” Bingol said.
She and others also argued that approving the data center would preempt the work of Envision Loudoun, the ongoing revision of the county’s comprehensive plan. The county is currently grappling with whether and how to change development policies in the Transition Policy Area, the buffer between its suburban east and rural west. The project falls in that area.
“It’s really going to be setting a precedent if you allow this in this area,” said Joseph Smith. “… If we’re going to have an Envision Loudoun process, then let that take place.” He also argued that the bridges along Sycolin Road on either side of the project will make it difficult to expand the already-congested road.
The applicants also caused a flap by proposing 40- to 60-foot-tall buildings—since reduced to 35 feet—but presenting renderings depicting 25-foot-tall buildings.
The property also highlights a conflict between the committee guiding the Envision Loudoun process the Board of Supervisors that appointed that committee. It sits on an area that the committee favors changing to a light industrial setting, but the Board of Supervisors at its most recent meeting told the committee it was off track in suggesting sweeping changes to the Transition Policy Area when the majority of public comment has been to preserve it.
The project has divided the commission. Commissioner Eugene Scheel (Catoctin) moved to recommend the Board of Supervisors deny the application.
“I’ve known this area since 1965,” Scheel said. “It’s about the same now as it was in 1965, except the road is paved.” He said the area around the property is “open, sylvan.”
Commissioners Tom Priscilla (Blue Ridge) and Dan Lloyd (Sterling) supported that motion.
“We start putting these data centers everywhere, we are ruining the beauty of our area,” Lloyd said. “… I think if we start pushing these further out west, it’s just the wrong move.”
But the majority of commissioners voted instead to continue review during an Oct. 12 meeting. Despite revisions to the proposed proffers on the site, county planners still recommend denial.