Facing ‘no-win situation,’ Planning Commission recommends data centers in Arcola neighborhood

May 15 2024

Facing no-win situation Planning Commission recommends data centers in Arcola neighborhood

The Loudoun County Planning Commission voted narrowly May 9 to recommend approval of the Hiddenwood Assemblage application, which asks the county to allow several homeowners along a once-rural Arcola gravel lane to sell their land to a data center developer. Decision makers on both sides of the issue call it a “no-win situation” as they try to balance the interests of the homeowners petitioning for the zoning change with those who live in Briarfield Estates, an adjacent neighborhood that would be almost entirely surrounded by data center construction if the rezoning goes through.

After the 4-3 vote, the application now goes to the Board of Supervisors, which in 2022 voted 5-4 to approve a data center development owned by JK Land Holdings on a parcel adjacent to Hiddenwood Lane, where some homes date to the 1950s and 60s. That impending development on their doorstep adds a particular sense of urgency for many residents of the 20 residential parcels.

Hiddenwood Lane residents say their neighborhood has already been engulfed by a massive construction zone as trucks and construction crews build several data center campuses approved by county supervisors in recent years.

Right now, the only way in and out of the neighborhood to Route 50 is Racefield Lane, another once-quiet country lane now traversed constantly by heavy equipment. Residents say delivery drivers, school buses and emergency vehicles have trouble accessing their homes, to say nothing of the dust and noise that comes from living next to an industrial-scale construction site.

Segments of Northstar and Dulles West boulevards will open in August, according to the office of Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), who represents the area. Those four-lane roads will replace Racefield Lane as the outlet for Hiddenwood residents.

JK Technology Park 2, the 869,000-square-foot development approved by supervisors in 2022, is immediately to the south of the subdivision and includes part of Hiddenwood Lane itself. Some of the data center buildings could be built 100 feet from the property line, replacing a quiet stand of trees with massive concrete buildings filled with computer servers.

The vote to approve JK 2 came “after a group of residents dropped their opposition to the project, apparently opting to try and sell their homes,” Data Center Frontier reported at the time.

“That land is already on the market,” said Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), who then represented the area, according to Data Center Frontier. He voted for the application along with Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), Mike Turner (D-Ashburn), Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin) and Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg).

Letourneau voted against it. Juli Briskman (D-Algonkian), Koran Saines (D-Sterling) and Sylvia Glass (D-Broad Run) also voted “nay.”

“We need to be selective about where we’re putting them to avoid residential impact,” Letourneau said, according to Data Center Frontier. “If we want to get away from the checkerboard pattern of data centers mixed with residential, all jumbled together, then at some point we have to stop doing it. I know that’s difficult, but we have to stand up for the residents.”

For all intents and purposes, the subdivision “is already part of an approved data center park,” Hiddenwood resident Kaleb Calhoun told the Planning Commission at the May 9 meeting. In addition to the sites being developed by JK Land Holdings, other nearby properties are under construction by Yondr, Amazon, BlackChamber and other data center developers.

Ryan Khan, another resident who said his family has lived in the subdivision for 20 years, said rezoning their neighborhood for data centers would allow them to “move on with our lives,” a sentiment echoed by many who live there.

The Hiddenwood residents have found themselves in a “significant, unique situation … that occurs with no other neighborhood in Loudoun County,” said Michael Romeo, of Walsh Colucci, who is representing the applicants.

“There’s trash being dumped. There are data centers under construction — that are built and soon to be completed. There are massive jumbo deliveries occurring on a regular basis,” Romeo said. “Trucks break down and block the road, causing a major safety issue. (Racefield Lane) was repaved just last year and there are already major potholes all throughout it.”

“… This is a miserable experience for everybody involved, and everybody sitting behind me has to deal with this all the time,” he said, gesturing toward the some two-dozen Hiddenwood residents and family members sitting in the board room.

Romeo said that the Hiddenwood application, which is seeking permission to build up to 756,000 square feet of data center floor space, makes every reasonable effort to minimize the negative impacts to the Briarfield subdivision in a way that the JK 2 application failed to do.

The proposal limits the height of the data center buildings nearest to Briarfield’s Ashby Oak Drive to 24 feet above the cul-de-sac. Building heights in other areas of the Hiddenwood project area would be limited to 50 feet. Romeo showed digital renderings that indicated the Hiddenwood data centers would be nearly invisible from Briarfield even in winter, when trees have no leaves. The developer would be required to pay $75,000 to the Briarfield homeowners association for additional landscaping to block the view.

“There’s no reason to not allow them to move forward,” Romeo told commissioners.

But for Briarfield residents, some of whom have said in written comments that the Hiddenwood subdivision should remain as a “buffer” between them and JK 2, turning Hiddenwood into another data center project would sandwich their homes — built just a decade ago — between JK 2 and another JK Land Holdings data center development to the north called JK Technology Park 1.

The latter development is slated for a 72-acre property rezoned by supervisors in 2020 for more than 3 million square feet of data center space — Briskman was the sole “nay” in the 8-1 vote. The property was previously zoned for a mixture of residential and industrial uses and the 2019 General Plan, adopted less than a year before the JK 1 vote, envisioned residential development on the site.

“By-right homes in that area would be much worse for the community, in my opinion,” Buffington said before the 2020 vote, citing especially concerns about traffic. He noted that 300 homes could have been built on the property without any legislative permits under existing zoning.

The Hiddenwood residents feel trapped and they are truly the victims in the JK 2 approval,” said a Feb. 23 letter to the Planning Commission from Briarfield resident Lauren Murphy. “… I feel terrible for them, and for their loss of tranquility and peace. With that being said, this application cannot be approved as it will simply pass on their plight to another victim — Briarfield Estates. Two wrongs do not make a right here. I don’t have a solution, but I wish the county could do more to assist them with their plight. However, casting their problems onto another neighborhood should not even be a consideration.”

“If the Hiddenwood Assemblage passes, I will not be able to see the buildings from my house,” the letter said at another point, “but that doesn’t mean it’s any less concerning. My entire neighborhood will now be blocked in from all sides.”

During the May 9 meeting, commissioners took the unusual step of taking a 30-minute recess to negotiate with Romeo on revisions to the legal commitments, known as proffers, to ensure the mitigation measures were enforceable.

In a May 13 email to the Times-Mirror, Murphy said she appreciated the Planning Commission working with the applicants to lessen the potential negative impacts to her neighborhood.

“But,” Murphy said, “at the end of the day an approval of any kind is passing Hiddenwood’s problem directly onto Briarfield Estates. This is setting a dangerous precedent.”

“I don’t know how it can sit right with anyone that we could now be bulldozing entire neighborhoods, some fewer than 10 years old, to erect data centers directly adjacent to other neighborhoods,” she said. “This simply cannot be the direction that Loudoun County is heading towards.”

Bala Thumma, who sits on the Briarfield homeowners association board, said in a separate email that the association’s “stance has always been to oppose the application in its entirety” and that the latest draft of the application “does not go anywhere near far enough to mitigate impacts to our community.”

The Piedmont Environmental Council also opposes the application. Tia Earman, a PEC representative who spoke at the May 9 meeting, said that, “no matter what decision is made at this point on this application, … homeowners and residents are going to have a reduced quality of life as a result.” And, she emphasized, her organization “sympathize(s) and empathize(s)” with the Hiddenwood homeowners.

But, she said, the PEC “continue(s) to oppose any rezoning in Loudoun County to allow by-right data centers on properties not currently in the pipeline to produce more of these energy giants.” She said that approving any legislative data center application adds to the “expansive energy crisis” and harms efforts to mitigate climate change. The PEC could consider supporting the application, she said, if data centers were proffered out as a permitted use.

Most commissioners and zoning staffers agreed that the application represents the culmination of years of contradictory planning and zoning, and many commissioners said supervisors should have never put the two neighborhoods in their current position.

Had the Briarfield and Hiddenwood subdivisions not already existed, county planners Marshall Brown and Marchant Schneider told the commission, staffers would have likely recommended during the drafting process for the 2019 General Plan that the area be planned for non-residential development, especially owing to its proximity to the flight paths of planes taking off from nearby Dulles International Airport.

“The idea of the General Plan was to protect the residents that were there,” Schneider said. “We would have made a different recommendation” if the neighborhoods weren’t already there, he said.

Madhava Madireddy (Dulles), who represents the area, asked Romeo if he would consider cutting the permitted floor space by half.

Romeo responded that “there is certain amount of square footage that allows this deal to work,” and that cutting the floor space in half would make the project financially unfeasible.

Madireddy moved to recommend denying the application, acknowledging the complexity of the situation by leaving out the usual formula of asking his fellow commissioners to support the motion. He said as much as he sympathized with the homeowners, he could not support building more data centers so close to another residential neighborhood.

“I really feel for the Hiddenwood residents,” Madireddy said. “… My problem is not with what you guys are going through. My problem is with what is coming in there.”

The motion failed on a 4-4 vote, with Commissioner Ad Barnes (Leesburg) absent. Joining Madireddy in voting for denial were Chair Michelle Frank (Broad Run), Robin-Eve Jasper (Little River) and Mark Miller (Catoctin).

“I will say, I don’t think Hiddenwood Lane should have been put in the position of being a ‘buffer’ for the data centers,” Frank said, noting that she opposed the 2019 General Plan’s mapping of the area around Hiddenwood and Briarfield for industrial uses like data centers.

“It’s a complicated area, in large part just because of its organic growth over decades,” she said. “But it was made more complicated by that decision four years ago.”

Jasper echoed many of the same points throughout the night. But, she said, “I still think that we are ultimately exporting the problem and creating a bad precedent by doing this. But I do appreciate that everybody’s worked hard to come to the best solution that they can under the circumstances.”

Miller said he supported Madireddy’s motion because he felt the application had too many outstanding questions and the current draft “is never going to see the light of day with passage by the Board of Supervisors.”

Commissioner Dale Polen Myers (At Large), the commission’s most outspoken supporter of the Hiddenwood proposal during the meeting, said that Miller was wrong to say the board wouldn’t approve the application.

“Chair (Phyllis) Randall 110% supports these folks and what needs to be done (unintelligible) this data center,” Myers said.

A May 10 email seeking comment from Randall on Myers’ statement was returned by her chief of staff, Matt Rogers. “The Chair is knee-deep in preparations for the State of the County, so we won’t be able to get an answer on this for you,” he said. The State of the County address is May 22.

Myers argued that the General Plan’s current vision for residential development on the Hiddenwood property was entirely out of step with the reality on the ground. “I don’t think there’s any way anybody would ever do townhouses along that stretch, especially when they’re in front of a data center,” she said.

“There is only one use left for them, and that’s to work with what the county has given them,” she said at another point. “And the county gave them a data center — literally — not just in the front yard, not just on the road, but literally up to their sidewalk. And they have dramatically changed this application since day one. Every time somebody has said, ‘I need this.’ ‘I want that.’ ‘Can you help me with this?’ They’ve never said no. So I believe in good faith — I think that the elements of what needs to be done for this application are in front of us tonight.”

After nearly 3 ½ hours of discussion, the Hiddenwood residents and families in the room clapped as Myers, Vice Chair Eric Combs (Ashburn), Clifford Keirce (Sterling) and James Banks (Algonkian) voted to recommend approving the application. Miller abstained.

Source: loudountimes.com