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Data center zone changes raise Loudoun development questions

A portion of land being developed for a data center in Dulles along Route 50 could be the impetus for zone code changes discouraging but not prohibiting data centers on land labeled commercial light industrial.

Data centers may be pushed into the “special exception” zoning category rather than permitted use.

Supervisors Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) and Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) spearheaded the item requesting a resolution with the addition of the special exception rezone and removal of permitted use at a July 1 meeting.

Land labeled commercial light industrial (CLI) is meant for a mix of office and industrial uses and is "to accommodate a mix of similar and compatible office and industrial uses, and related supportive commercial retail and service uses along Route 50/John Mosby Highway Corridor," according to county documents. "According to the Revised 1993 Zoning Ordinance, the CLI district has limited traffic and aesthetic impacts on surrounding properties and on supporting public facilities and utilities."

The CLI district in Loudoun consists of 125 parcels totaling 690 acres. Many of the CLI parcels in the county have residential development sandwiched between them, causing Letourneau and Clarke to believe it’s no longer appropriate to allow data centers on a permitted use basis for the land intended for mix use.

The issue became apparent when a data center yet to be named secured the rights to build on a specific parcel of land in Dulles along Route 50.

Some board members at a July 1 meeting rose issue with the idea, saying it was anti-business and would discourage data centers being built in the county.

“I also would love someone to tell me what kind of message are we now sending to the business community when we went through arduous process to add data center [as permitted use] zoning,” Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) said at the meeting.

“There was a lot of work that went into this, and we voted to essentially allow these data centers by right,” Supervisor Ken Reed (R-Leesburg) added. “I would love to see data centers in Leesburg. I don’t want them to be near residential … This is not the way to do it. We have an item here to go in before the [Virginia] State Corporation Commission to get those mono poles rerouted, but this is really an anti-business effort.”

Clarke put forward a friendly amendment, which didn’t pass, that the zoning change be made for all land use parcels, not just CLI.

“Unless we want to just have unfettered development, this is not a business unfriendly situation,” she said. “This is more of a smart planning process. We need to have the right development in the right places.”

Special exception would give Supervisors greater control over the development of the Route 50 gateway.

Staff noted in answer to a question from Volpe that the land has been permitted use for data centers for “a long time.”

Why is it an issue now? Because, according to Letourneau, no data centers have wanted to develop the land before.

Any changes to the land’s zoning specifications in the Revised 1993 Zoning Ordinance wouldn’t impact the data center's build set to go on the Dulles land.

But the data center brings with it a need for the infrastructure to sustain it, meaning further development than just the building itself.

By law, Dominion Virginia Power is required to serve the center, so they’re planning a new transmission power line just more than 4 miles long in that corridor as well, serving the new substation in the Poland Road Route 50 area. Dominion’s expansion to this area isn’t by choice, Letourneau said in a newsletter earlier this year.

It’s development like this that causes Clarke and Letourneau concern. They would rather see CLI land get back to its intended use.

“Prior to that there was not a single data center in the CLI,” he said. “It opens up the entire corridor to additional data centers. That’s the concern. There is residential sandwiched right in the middle of it...And as I said, we are not restricting data centers from every parcel, just making it a special exception … We will engage with data center community with this. It’s not that we’re taking away some great desire people had. Once you get this one [center], it’ll start popping up where no one intended.”

The item passed in a 6-3 vote with Reed, Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) and Volpe opposed. The vote doesn’t make a rezone final, but it does direct staff to create a resolution when they can for further consideration.

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