A proposal to allow industrial and data center development on what is today farmland south of Leesburg has drawn concern from the people living nearby.
As the county works to update its comprehensive plan, the Transition Policy Area, about 36 square miles hemming in the suburban northeastern part of Loudoun, has been a particular area of concern. Added to the county’s current plan in 2001, the Transition Policy Area was created to “serve as a separation between the suburban and rural policy areas and that has a transition of uses, incorporating elements of both suburban and rural design to create truly unique country-side developments.”
It has become a defining feature of development in Loudoun. It comprises a bit less than 7 percent of the county’s area, dividing the county from north to south around Leesburg and then running along the county’s southeastern border.
Its western edge is called the Urban Growth Boundary, and central water and sewer are not allowed west of that line except for town systems.
But as planners and committees try to plan for the next 20 years of growth in Loudoun, they are scrambling to find ways to accommodate the county’s projected business and residential growth. In an area south of Leesburg along the Dulles Greenway, that could mean pushing the Urban Growth Boundary westward from the Dulles Greenway to Evergreen Mills Road between Leesburg’s border and Sycolin Creek. It could also mean replacing open fields in areas previously limited to low-density residential development with industrial data centers.
That idea sparked particular concern in the Red Cedar neighborhood, off Evergreen Mills Road behind Loudoun Country Day School and Sycolin Creek Elementary. Residents there were alarmed to learn that farmland near them is being targeted for data center development.
“The scary thing is we don’t know the impact of data centers surrounding neighborhoods in the [Transition Policy Area],” said Red Cedar resident and Realtor Kelly McGinn. “We aren’t one mile from the Metro, and we can’t walk to shops and restaurants like the neighborhoods on Waxpool [Road] and in Ashburn. We aren’t in an urban location, so could data centers surrounding more rural neighborhoods give buyers a pause to purchase here if they have other options at the same price point.”
Under the current draft of the comprehensive plan, the nearest corner of a parcel where data centers would be allowed is less than a thousand feet from homes at Red Cedar.
“We don’t know the impact of having data centers on our quality of life, our property values,” said Carrie Dever. “We know traffic and schools aren’t going to be impacted, but other than that, what light pollution is there going to be? What noise pollution is there going to be?”
Instead, she said, that area could see more housing development, provided infrastructure keeps up. She and some of her neighbors have begun contacting county supervisors, their homeowners’ association and the Piedmont Environmental Council, which is hosting a series of meetings on the comprehensive plan project. They’ve also created a Facebook page, Keep Evergreen Mills Rd Green at facebook.com/groups/Keep.EGM.Green, to share information about their concerns.
“We just want to ensure that there’s not another data center alley right outside of our neighborhood,” Dever said.
True North Opens the Door
The first warning may have been a decision by the county board in January of last year. Supervisors narrowly voted to approve plans for True North, a 750,000-square-foot data center complex on 106 previously wooded acres between Sycolin Road, the Dulles Greenway, and Goose Creek.
That application was vehemently opposed by the three county supervisors whose districts include or border the land, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), and hundreds of Loudouners who wroteemails, called, and showed up to board meetings.
The project’s proponents argued it was 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.
But its opponents argued that allowing a data center on that property, south of the Dulles Greenway and separated 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.
That now seems to be the case, as the first draft of the county’s new comprehensive plan came out of a steering committee of citizens and businesses that would allow light industrial development—including data centers—south and west of the Dulles Greenway between Shreve Mill Road and Goose Creek.
Residents of Red Cedar were alarmed to find out about a proposal for a data center complex even further south, at the historic farm Holyfield between Red Cedar and the Academies of Loudoun. Planning Commissioners have twice voted against allowing data centers in that area. They did that over concern about the same issue brought up during a meeting with county staff members about the project: the homes nearby.
But commissioners say the area north of their neighborhood makes sense for industry.
“You’ve already got the overhead power lines going right through there, you’ve got a power plant right there, you’ve already got Stonewall Business Park—I think it’s roughly 1 million square feet of commercial already there—on the north side of the Greenway, which is the same corridor, you’ve got the water treatment plant, you’ve got rock quarries,” said Commissioner Cliff Keirce (Broad Run). “When True North data came along with their applications, it kind of made sense to me that this would be a good corridor for data centers.”
He also pointed out data centers are a major part of the county’s good budget fortunes, dramatically cutting its tax rate. And, he said, expanding the areas where data centers can develop may help take some of the pressure off other local businesses.
“They can come in with dollar values that are so attractive that they’ll chase other businesses out,” Keirce said. “We’re seeing that happen all over.”
Keirce also proposed special buffering around data centers in the transition area to screen them out of sight from homes and roads.
One commissioner opposes moving the Urban Growth Boundary or allowing data centers in the area: Eugene Scheel (Catoctin), whose district includes area in question. He is concerned that each development or planning change is a “stepping stone” heading west.
“I just think I’m in favor of policy of containment. I would not like to see the increased densities in the transition zone.” Scheel said the plan so far “brings these higher densities right up against the rural area of Loudoun.”
The person who appointed Scheel, Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), said he shares that view.
“If you back out of there and look at it on Google Earth or whatever, it’s all green grass,” Higgins said. “And so we’re going to put light industrial and data centers in there, I mean, I’m not going to support that. It’s unfortunate, but I think we let the nose of the cow into the tent with the True North data center.”
Higgins was one of the votes against allowing that project to move forward.
“I think data centers have been a great partner and asset for our county and helped us with balancing budgets, but there’s a place that you should zone for them and there’s other places that are not appropriate,” Higgins said.
And he said Goose Creek was the place to draw the line.
“If you don’t have a hard and fast geographical or physical boundary, where do you draw the line?” Higgins said. “Goose Creek was a good place to draw that line there, and when you decide to build out on the other side of the creek, where does that end?”
The Planning Commission has not yet finalized its recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. Currently, county planners hope to wrap up the commission’s work by the end of the month, bringing it to the Board of Supervisors on March 21.
“Candidly, I don’t hear a sense in the commission amongst the commissioners that it would change, nor have I heard vigorous opposition,” said Planning Commission Chairman Fred Jennings (Ashburn).
Supervisors will hold public hearings on the comprehensive plan Wednesday, April 24 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, April 27 at 9 a.m.