Editorial: Flexibility is Not a Plan

As it begins digging in to the Envision Loudoun comprehensive plan draft, the Loudoun County Planning Commission has quickly identified a flaw in the two years of work completed so far.

The proposed planning strategy for the next 20 years doesn’t really address data centers much at all. In the document’s 377 pages, the term appears only 15 times—that for one of the most dynamic and impactful industry segments in today’s economy and, quite likely, one of the most important redevelopment opportunities at the sunset of the plan’s horizon. (Data centers were little known 20 years ago, and may be little used 20 years from now.)

The approach outlined in the draft plan—and also promoted zoning changes supported by the current Board of Supervisors—is to allow “flexibility” to build data centers in more locations. While an ideal use for Loudoun’s vast acres of long-vacant industrial land, data centers have gobbled up areas that were once planned for office parks and employment centers. New rules would let them pop up next to the Starbucks in your neighborhood town center. Even new developments that were approved with the expectation of helping address the housing supply shortage, which has been identified as a major concern of planners during this exercise could be converted to cloud storage if supervisors are asked to allow the conversion.

While feeding the county’s economy, the land rush created by the data center boom has essentially trumped Loudoun’s community plans—creating uncertainty about what will develop where. Whether a property is used for a 1,000-home apartment complex, a 100,000-square-foot office park, or a 20-megawatt data center makes a difference. It makes a difference to the road network, the neighborhood schools and to amenities available to the surrounding community.

The commission’s proposal to reign in the willy-nilly nature of the current market is critical to the long-term success of their plan. Just as it must accommodate the need for new housing and parks and schools, the new plan ought to address the needs of the data center industry—and that includes targeting areas where they would be best suited in the overall fabric of the community.

That’s what planning is all about.

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