Finz: Sight (Not Site) Pollution–When Enough is Enough

By Sam Finz

First, let me say that this is not intended to be a treatise on land use planning. Rather it is an opinion; it is my opinion as to what has transpired in Loudoun County over the years, the result of poor planning and a lack of insight on the part of Loudoun County officials when it comes to the relationship between good land use planning and unsightly building and development.

In this instance, I am specifically referring to the “boxy looking” data centers that have “popped up” over the past few years. These developments have been labeled as beneficial by economic development specialists, who say that such types of development create additional tax revenue. They say that we in Loudoun County are now leaders among jurisdictions throughout the nation when it comes to locating high-tech communication facilities, otherwise referred to as “data centers.” 

Loudoun County brags of its leadership role in the industry. In a recent article on “DP Facilities” in Virginia Business, the county Economic Development director is quoted as saying, “with bountiful land and affordable reliable electricity, Loudoun’s data center industry took off.” “We went all in,” says Rizer, “who obtained industry certifications and traveled the country speaking at data center conferences.”

I, for one, do not see the benefits of this type of development without first weighing their negative impact. As a former local government official, who cut his teeth on economic development in Fairfax County back in the ’60s and ’70s when Tysons Corner was just an ordinary cow pasture, I get it. I get the importance of creating additional revenue sources, generating tax base revenue to solve financial problems, and finding alternative ways to offset the cost of providing essential services. I have written articles on economic development as a tool for balancing budgets and avoiding large tax increases.

While I applaud Mr. Rizer’s efforts on behalf of Loudoun County to make Loudoun a leader in the data-center industry, I find it terribly disheartening the way Loudoun County has gone about pursuing these efforts. More specifically, my observations suggest that there has been little, or no attention given to countywide planning of these sorts of development; and far less attention to the design, architecture and massive presence these data centers have on the county’s overall appearance. Land use planning is not just about designating development as residential, commercial, or industrial use, nor is it just finding a suitable parcel. Rather, it is about location, and specifically the physical location and relationship between and among multiple land uses.

These data centers are massive in size. On some sites they sprawl the length of a city block and have a never-ending presence, with no relief, no breaks, no attempt to provide see-through vistas. Worse than that, they overshadow lower scale developments, and in many cases, single-family residential housing communities. It is a myth to think that they add to the employment base of the county. Given the size of these facilities, there are very few workers working in these facilities. Simply put, I would label data centers and the revenue they produce, as an alternative source of county revenue, one which has a significant downside by ignoring traditional land use values. Furthermore, with the way technology is advancing, no doubt the need for these large boxy looking data centers may be obsolete in the future. 

I recall driving west on Rt. 50 toward Lenah a few years ago where I saw a sign that read “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun.” I gathered at the time that it was meant to send a message that we want “smart development,” not overdevelopment in Loudoun County. At the time I agreed with the message and thought it was wise to preserve what was left of Loudoun County and avoid overdevelopment. I still believe in “smart development” where we set as a priority protecting the environment and preserving the natural beauty of the county.

Ironically, in the very same location where the “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun” sign once stood is a new industrial looking data center. This one is located directly adjacent to a residential community (literally in homeowners’ back yards), with hardly any buffering, on a site where a beautiful horse farm previously existed. I find it sad that the county would totally ignore the concept of “smart development” and traditional land use planning principals in this case, and instead allow a large-scale industrial development to co-locate on a tract with lower density single family residential homes. It is absurd to think that such an industrial looking mega-development is seen by county planners as appropriate on this site. 

In a county known for its beautiful landscape, its rolling hills, its agricultural and farming interests, the presence of these massive structures is contrary to everything that Loudoun has been known for in the past. The fact is, that Loudoun has become something different for many of us who have lived here for many years. I have lived in rural Loudoun County since the early 1970s. While that does not make me a pioneer by any means, it does at the very least qualify me to draw comparisons of what was and what is now. 

Enough is enough. There are far too many of these goliath boxy looking superstructures in our county today. While we cannot turn back time and rethink what has been done, we can at least stop this foolishness. County officials can stop placing such a high priority on economic development and begin placing a higher priority on the preservation and redevelopment of properties that better reflect the beauty and ambiance of rural Loudoun. 

[Sam Finz author is a long-term resident of Loudoun County. He has served as a former county, city and town manager in several jurisdictions and as the deputy county executive for Planning and Development in Fairfax County.]

4 thoughts on “Finz: Sight (Not Site) Pollution–When Enough is Enough

  • 2020-09-25 at 10:55 am

    There are some good points here but, if you pardon the expression, the cow is out of the barn when it comes to data centers in eastern Loudoun.

    You are absolutely correct on these first two points. I have spent far too many consecutive days in data centers and I am often one of the few people on the floor for most of that time. The upside to your second point is the lack of employment at the data centers reduces traffic congestion there. BTW, they are uglier and louder inside than outside. You have to wear hearing protection inside.

    “These data centers are massive in size. On some sites they sprawl the length of a city block and have a never-ending presence, with no relief, no breaks, no attempt to provide see-through vistas.

    “It is a myth to think that they add to the employment base of the county. Given the size of these facilities, there are very few workers working in these facilities.

    I think you are wrong on the third point. Of course, everything eventually becomes obsolete in the future, but these buildings aren’t likely to be obsolete in the “near future.” Tech is constantly shrinking though we are approaching some physical limits. But the need to safely store, power and cool tech isn’t going to stop any time soon. The centers are just likely to draw more power as they host larger numbers of smaller devices.

    “Furthermore, with the way technology is advancing, no doubt the need for these large boxy looking data centers may be obsolete in the future.

    But skewing your tax base in one direction and relying on one type of business for a large portion of tax revenue is risky. But the BoS is clearly proceeding with the plan to “Fairfax Loudoun” and the only debate seems to be how quickly they can do so without making it obvious to everyone.

  • 2020-09-25 at 11:29 am

    Without data center revenue, Loudoun would be in a dismal spot. Their locations in eastern Loudoun and the TPA, make perfect sense. This is coastal plain at the fall line where the land is nearly featureless. The author knows this.

    The failure of Loudoun’s leadership was to not embrace these money printing machines in a better way. They could have permitted more, quickly, and slashed Loudoun homeowners tax rates to one of the lowest in the area. That, combined with limits on massive residential developments, and we’d be sitting pretty.

    Could their exterior appearance be mitigated? Certainly. A former supervisor had some good ideas on how to accomplish that. Along with berming, green strips, and other creative solutions, it could, and should happen. I’ll take a data center next door to me vs. another ridgetop blob of townhomes and condo’s any day.

  • 2020-09-27 at 7:35 pm

    The sad part of data centers is that we built them for nothing. I won’t argue that they are ugly, because the huge revenue increase outweighs their ugliness. Their downside is that, now that they generate $400M/year for the County, we taxpayers got nearly nothing in return. Successive Boards of Supervisors have spend every last dime of this additional revenue. Loudoun still ranks among the most heavily taxed counties in the United States. Had we applied this new revenue prudently, the BoS could have lowered our super-high property taxes, but they didn’t. Our spend-o-holic supervisors have wasted every dollar that we’ve made from these giant, ugly, cash-printing machines. In the end, we would have been better off with open fields. But, as Chris notes, then the BoS just would have planted rows of townhouses instead.

  • 2020-09-28 at 9:20 am

    Enough is enough should be the rallying cry of all Loudoun constituents. It should apply to the continuing 39% or so we over tax ourselves because the state takes hundreds of millions we should be getting back from state sales tax via the “composite index”. Enough is enough should apply to the BOS refusing to mandate VDOT do its job at least to the minimum of its own published standards of maintenance of roads in Loudoun it is responsible for. Enough is enough when it comes to the BOS refusing to even publish a list of priorities as it lurches from one inconsequential topic to another instead of managing the county as expected by ALL the constituents not just the local party that put them in office because the majority of Loudoun doesn’t bother to vote in local elections. Finally and sadly enough is enough when we view the BOS AND the school board not paying attention to our most vulnerable students who LCPS fictitiously promotes that a 5,6 07 year old can learn online by themselves in a trailer without any parental support or even supervision. Where is the focus on duty? Enough is enough – do your job!

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