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.]