One of the most controversial decisions by the previous Board of Supervisors has raised its head again as the current board considers changes to True North, the project build a data center complex on Goose Creek between Sycolin Road and the Dulles Greenway.
In 2018, the county approved voted to approve a 750,000-square-foot data center complex on 106 wooded acres. That application raised intense protest, especially from environmental groups, pointing not only to Goose Creek but to destroying a globally-rare ecological community called the Northern Piedmont mafic barren on the site. The lengthy debate culminated in a 5-4 vote in January 2018 while people in the boardroom symbolically turned their backs on the county dais.
Now that developer, Compass Datacenters, has returnd with a request to revise that application, removing the two proposed buildings closest to the Dulles Greenway, one of which is also the closet to the river, and create an option to combine three 35-foot buildings in the center of the property into a single 56-foot building. That would bring the campus down to 625,000 square feet of data center development. They also now offer to protect more open space and to protect the mafic barren, which has not yet been destroyed.
Cooley LLP attorney Colleen Gillis, who represents the applicants, said after the 2018 approval, the market changed.
“The industry changed in the six months following our approval in 2018. We worked really hard to get a tenant under the approval that you all gave us in 2018 to no avail,” she told supervisors at their public hearing April 13.
But she had also told supervisors in 2018 that the developers had a tenant onboard—which she said on April 13 was a handshake deal that fell through. That sparked ire from County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). She also said although environmental groups have come to support the application, that doesn’t mean they support the data center development as a whole.
“If you come into my house and steal $100, and then ask me do I want $20 back, I’m going to say yes, can I have $20 back. That’s what’s happening with the environmental community right now,” Randall said. “So they’re not on board—they feel like they have no choice, because you’re using the mafic barren as a fuzzy little hostage, which is not the same thing.”
And representatives from the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Piedmont Environmental Council and Goose Creek Association largely agreed. Evan McCarthy of the PEC said the 2018 decision was “a huge disappointment.”
“Nothing can fully mitigate the impact of data centers next to Goose Creek, but these commitments will reduce the potential negative impacts and are what we would expect from a good neighbor,” he said.
Of current supervisors, only Randall and Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) voted against True North in 2018. Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling), Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) voted in favor at that time. The majority of supervisors indicated they plan to support the application when it comes up for a vote on May 17.
“This is a vote to save the mafic barren, period. If you vote yes, you are voting to save the Northern Piedmont mafic barren, and if you vote no, you are voting to destroy that,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn). “That’s what the vote is, let’s not kid ourselves.”
“The vote has already happened to approve a data center. If you like it or don’t like it, that vote has happened,” Saines said. “That’s not what this vote is. So yes, you can vote no for it, but you’re voting to still keep it the way it was.”
Although the applicant now proposes to protect more land, they may face no votes again from some supervisors who opposed it in 2018. Buffington said he still will vote against it due to his continued opposition to data center development in the county’s Transition Policy Area south of the Greenway, and Randall said “I cannot look at myself in the mirror if I vote for this application, because I do not trust the applicant.”
“This is a money-making moment that happens to be a better application for the environment than the other money-making moment, but that’s really all that this is,” she said. “My conscience will not allow me to do this.”
Supervisors voted 5-2-2 to send the application to their May 17 meeting for a vote, with Randall and Buffington opposed and Letourneau and Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) absent.