In a narrow, contentious, and hotly protested vote, Loudoun supervisors last night approved plans for a 750,000-square-foot data center complex on 106 wooded acres between Sycolin Road, the Dulles Greenway, and Goose Creek.
The application has been vehemently opposed by the four supervisors whose districts border or include the land—supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn), Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), and County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large)—and by hundreds of Loudouners who wrote emails, called, and showed up to board meetings.
It remained a contentious issue through Thursday’s meeting, when the line of speakers came up against the board’s newly established time limits on public input at business meetings and some went on a waiting list.
“This could be a chance to demonstrate that the meaning of living in the county with the highest household income in the nation is that we can afford to say no,” said Oya Simpson. “Otherwise, what good is it?”
Many people are concerned about the dangers of allowing an industrial facility on Goose Creek upstream of a source of drinking water for Loudoun Water.
“Yes, that revenue would help fund our children’s education and our fast-growing school system, but at what cost to our environment?” said Cheri Conca. “Will our children pay with their health? We can’t drink money, and we can’t breathe it either.”
“We cannot and should not put price tags on either rare ecosystems or watersheds that are sources of public drinking water,” said Maria Gianferrari. “Both of those things are irreplaceable, but data centers are not.”
Proponents of the project argue it is projected to bring in as much as $23 million in tax revenue when it reaches full buildout, and that it will be less harmful to the environment than the 10 homes—one per 10 acres—that could be built on the property without the county’s approval.
“The biggest problem with the debate has been that it is a debate about this project versus nothing, versus the status quo, and that’s not reality,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “The reality is that this site will get clear-cut and this site will get developed, and it’s a question for the board to decide whether this is a better use than what some of the other uses that are going to get used on this site would be.”
The applicant has committed to capping the height of the buildings along Sycolin Road to 27 feet; providing a one-time $81,500 payout to the county for a scholarship; and planting trees and landscaping around the perimeter of the property to help screen the data center complex from the road.
The application also comes with commitments to stormwater mitigation and other environmental considerations, such as an underground filtration system to clean runoff before it leaves the property into the stream.
Opponents have worried that allowing a data center on that property, across the Dulles Greenway from other industrial projects in the Transition Policy Area, would open the floodgates to more heavy commercial development in that area, creeping toward Loudoun’s rural west. Buona said he has already received emails from people with property along Goose Creek supporting the application—because they, too, would like to sell their property to a data center developer.
“This one was wrong on day one and it’s wrong today,” Buffington said. “It’ll set a bad precedent for build data centers in the transition policy area west of the Greenway.”
“It’s just not the right thing to do,” Higgins said. “It’s not the right place. I’m saddened by the prospect that this will happen, and the future prospects of what it will cause to happen in that area.”
“We don’t need the money,” Buona said. “This is about greed over common sense.”
He asked for the relatively rare roll call vote on both a failed attempt to deny the application and the successful motion to approve it.
“This board is up for reelection in 2019,” Buona said to the Loudouners crowding the boardroom. “You draw your own conclusions in the roll call vote.”
And Buffington raised the specter of a debate that stretches back to the beginning of the building boom in Loudoun:
“It appears that five of you are going to push this through, even though all of the western Loudoun County supervisors unanimously oppose it,” Buffington said. “It’s votes and decisions like this that make me seriously consider whether we need a western Loudoun county separate from Loudoun County.”