What's up there? There's more than meets the eye to Short Hill Mountain

A cartoon on the mystery at Short Hill Mountain that ran in the Times-Mirror in January 1963. The dispute bears striking similarities to today.

At the height of the Cold War, communications contractor AT&T constructed a secret, underground installation at the top of Short Hill Mountain. Loudoun County's planning commission, the Times-Mirror and local residents sought answers at the time about the activities that would be conducted inside a bunker that was built into the mountain.

Fifty-three years later, county leaders, the Times-Mirror and local residents are asking the same questions: What's going on at Short Hill Mountain?

AT&T isn't talking.

Earlier this week, AT&T abruptly abandoned a proposal filed with county planners to build a structure described to be as large as a Costco store with eight super generators and a huge water storage tank at the site.

For what purpose? That has never been made clear publicly.

AT&T has invoked a confidentiality clause about its activities on Short Hill Mountain, a project known internally as "Project Aurelia," the Times-Mirror has learned. Several county supervisors and planners have visited the property but say that they're not at liberty to talk about the project. Background checks are reportedly required for those who visit.

AT&T's decision to withdraw its current proposal at the site came as opposition mounted from residents and several county supervisors. The disclosure of the project initially surprised residents and some members of the planning commission. It was initially criticized as an eyesore on the viewshed of the mountain, then later opposed as an environmental threat that also distorted the county's Comprehensive Plan for commercial construction on land designated for preservation of its natural assets.

Despite AT&T's withdrawal of its plan, history suggests that activities on Short Hill Mountain -- which reportedly have been moribund for several years -- will not end. AT&T deflected similar questions about the site in 1963. The company's director of government communications disclosed plans for the site during an interview with the Times-Mirror on Jan. 31, 1963.

Documents reveal AT&T Short Hill project's mystery name no one wants to talk about

'Slicing off the top of Short Hill'

Loudouners in 1963 wanted to know what "mystery project" was slicing off the top of Short Hill Mountain.

"It may be Americans, or it may be the Russians, but someone is slicing off the top of Short Hill Mountain near Neersville and the Planning Commission wants to know why," the Times-Mirror reported. "The planners, of course, have their suspicions. They think it is the American Telephone and Telegraph Company [AT&T] - and they are probably right."

The project in the 1960s was a secure underground AT&T communications network serving both the government and private companies. At the time, AT&T was building a network of underground cable to connect similar projects around the country stretching from Maryland to Kansas and possibly beyond.

In 2016, there's a new project. It's called "Project Aurelia-Transport Facility Phase 1," a 3.5-acre, 35-foot-tall 'telephone transmission utility substation." Few are willing to talk about it. In a Jan. 20, 2015, letter to the Loudoun County Department of Building and Development, a representative of the AT&T Parsons Environmental & Infrastructure Group requested the county to "maintain confidentiality for all drawings and specifications."

Representatives from AT&T, Loudoun County, Parsons, Fairfax County- based McKeever Services Corp. and Mountaineer Pipe in Purcellville, either declined to comment about "Project Aurelia" or would not return calls.

The Times-Mirror also reached out to AT&T for an explanation. Instead, the Times-Mirror was notified by the telecom giant was withdrawing its commission permit to build the facility on Short Hill Mountain, a decision made June 13 in a letter addressed to the director of the Loudoun County Department of Planning and Zoning.

"This is and has been a government site up there since 1963," Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) told the Times-Mirror. Higgins, however, would not comment on the "Project Aurelia" documents.

"They don't talk in detail about what the specific use is inside the building other than the fact that it's an AT&T application." Loudoun County Department of Planning and Zoning Director Ricky Barker said when asked if the site was a government facility. "We don't get into the specific details of that."

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D) also declined to comment when asked if the site was a government facility.

History repeating itself?

Western Loudoun residents in the 1960s reported "blasting and a lot of lights at night" on top of Short Hill Mountain. At the time, no one knew what was going on or who was behind the construction, not even county officials.

Alice Sommers, a zoning administrator in 1963, investigated the site only to find when she arrived that no one would tell her why they were there, what they were doing or what the project was. To her surprise, Sommers discovered the company employed about 50 people on a 24-hour watch and had already excavated the mountain to the point where it looked similar to a "stone quarry."

Following her visit, the project caused an outcry around the county. AT&T threatened to pull the plug on the project before it was ultimately approved by the planning commission.

"Who let that through?"

Over 50 years later, the proposed site has drawn parallels to the controversy and mystery it stirred in the 60s.

Conservationist Chris Van Vlack took a trip up Short Hill Mountain in November with several other county staff as part of a field appointment to assess the site.

Van Vlack, an urban and agriculture conservationist at the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District, had concerns about the site's storm water plan. He recalls that the site was empty and unsecured. He said he believed there was no way anyone would want a facility the size of a Wal-Mart or a Costco approved on a mountain in western Loudoun

But months later, Van Vlack says he was shocked to find that the site was no longer being pitched as a "data center" as it was initially presented.

"This is not gonna fly, they're not going to put a data center on the top of a mountain," Van Vlack recalls thinking at the time. "I really didn't think it would go through."

At the end of his visit, Van Vlack was given several business cards, one of them belonged to Wayne C. Barker, the then project manager of the site from Parsons Environmental and Infrastructure Group Inc. that read: "Principal Project Manager-Data Centers."

"We got the cards, they all had worked on their data center projects and that's obviously the group they had working on this," Van Vlack said. "You look at a data centers in eastern Loudoun and that's pretty much what the building looked like."

Little did he know the project was already moving full-force ahead.

After Van Vlack's visit to the facility, the applicants began to proceed with the various hurdles of approval - a process that called into question the approval by the planning commission and its staff.

The Loudoun County Planning Commission earlier this year gave AT&T the green light to build its massive facility, towering as high as 35 feet at the top of Short Hill on the ridge between Hillsboro and Lovettsville.

However, rural western Loudoun is protected by the county's Comprehensive Plan which includes developments such as data centers.

Planning Commissioner Eugene Scheel (Catoctin), who voted against the project's approval, says that after reading the report presented to the commission by the applicant and the Department of Planning and Zoning staff he began to wonder "who let that through?"

"I would say [the report] was not put together in a studied manner," Scheel said. "A studied manner would say that this is something that needs to be dealt with considering its importance " with a little bit more thought than the initial report seemed to indicate."

Scheel said that the commission had incorrectly stated that most of the project would be built in the Blue Ridge district, when, in fact, the project was mostly in the Catoctin district.

"That immediately showed me that there really wasn't much care putting this together because most of it's in Catoctin and very little in Blue Ridge," Scheel said. "And there were other sort of inconsistencies when I read the report very carefully that gave me the opinion that it was somewhat put together in less than a studied manner."

Planning and Zoning Director Ricky Barker, however, said that he didn't feel there was anything outstanding that would have caused him and his staff any delays before presenting the planning commission with its report.

Photos of the facility built on Short Hill Mountain by AT&T in the 60s have surfaced on defense and communications boards on the internet. One photo shows installations, now removed or in disuse, that includes an entrance to a bunker and decontamination chamber (Q), security stations (P). pop-up vehicle barrier (L), satellite dishes (T) and parabolic microwave antenna (clusters at top left). Detailed information about the facility has ever been revealed publicly.

Data center to 'utility substation'

Originally, two firms representing AT&T-- Walsh Colucci Lubeley Emrich & Walsh PC and Parsons Environment and Infrastructure Group, Inc. -- asked the county for two special exception applications to expand its "existing telecommunications facility." But that request changed when Loudoun County Zoning Administration Planner Brian Fish asked the applicant to clarify whether it was building a data center or a "Telecommunications Use and/or Structure," and if the telecommunications use had been discontinued for two years or more.

A special exception application would have allowed the applicant to be approved based on the specific zoning district they applied in, while a commission permit application requires the applicant to prove the project is a street, park or other public structure or public utility and in line with Loudoun's Comprehensive Plan.

Christine Gleckner, a land use planner with Walsh Colucci Lubeley Emrich & Walsh PC, in February, responded that after "discussion with staff regarding the existing use," they decided the application would now be for a "telephone transmission utility substation" - a facility that the AR-1 zoning district permitted.

County staff had also pressed the firm about issues related to the special exception applications including whether the application was consistent with Loudoun County's Comprehensive Plan; compatible with other existing uses in the area such as agricultural and residential properties; if it would protect the mitigate impact on the environment and whether it would contribute to the welfare or convenience of the public and be served by public utilities.

Gleckner in response explained that the firm had already addressed how the application had met such criteria. "However," she said, the application had been "revised" for the approval of a commission permit instead.

That same month, Parsons Environment and Infrastructure Group Inc. clarified in a Statement of Justification that the proposed expansion of the existing AT&T telephone transmission utility substation would "provide updated and expanded facilities that will allow the applicant to continue to serve the communications needs of Loudoun County and the region in addition to the government."

Five days later, Fish announced in a memorandum that "After further review and discussion with the applicant," they had found the proposed facility was in fact a 'Utility Substation, Transmission.'-- one that would serve as part of a "regional interconnecting grid system."

Zoning determination raises questions from all sides

Following the zoning administration's determination, residents, as well as several Board of Supervisors, began to call into question how county staff and the planning commission could sign off on the project.

In a Board of Supervisors meeting in May to vote on a commission permit to allow AT&T to expand its facility, supervisors pressed county staff on what the project truly would be used for and asked how they had suddenly decided to change the applicant's request for two special exemption applications to a commission permit.

"Does your interpretation [of the project] essentially fall simply to what the applicant is stating the use is?" Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) asked county staff.

Zoning Administrator Mark Stultz said that he and the county staff had relied on the information provided to them by the applicant. When further pressed by Letourneau if his staff could verify the site's true use, Stultz explained that one of the staff's deputies had recently visited the site which gave them the opportunity to verify what the applicant had stated.

"This isn't like a hotel where when they open a hotel you can see it's a hotel, no one can really know just by looking, at exactly what's going on there," Letourneau said.

"I'm very concerned that we're relying 100 percent on essentially self-representations that we can't verify and I don't know that we really know what's going in that facility whether it's a data center use which would be a special exception or ... something different," Vice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said.

That night, the board voted unanimously to delay consideration of a commission permit and had planned to move the item to its June 23 meeting,

Sam Kroiz a small business owner in Lovettsville, whose family has lived on his property for eight generations, says that part of the reasons he and his wife chose to settle in western Loudoun to start their cheese business was because they thought the mountains were protected by the county's Comprehensive Plan.

Kroiz said that ahead of the planning commission's meeting, he had only heard about the project the day the panel was set to vote.

Data center or not?

During a meeting held by representatives from Parsons and AT&T in May in Lovettsville, the applicants spoke in depth about the facility's over 2 million gallons of annual water usage, the four 4 megawatt generators needed to power the site as well as the 230,000-gallon underground diesel fuel storage capacity it held.

"If it's a telephone switching center it's way larger than any telephone switching center I've ever seen," John Lovegrove, a data communications expert from Purcellville, said.

Lovegrove said although it's typically difficult to tell the difference between a data center and a switching center, he explained the site would not serve as a local utility nor benefit Loudoun County as the applicants said it would.

"This is switching, and this is [for] transmission of the information highway " this isn't a data center," Bob Ericksen, a project manager for AT&T, told a crowd of over 100 concerned Loudoun residents.

Residents pressed AT&T on how the proposed facility would benefit Loudouners, but the AT&T representatives provided few specifics.

Meanwhile, several experts in federal communications suggested that the AT&T facility planned to update the Short Hill site with modern equipment to be used as a strategic, communications relay station. They explained there are several similar stations in the Blue Ridge district, including the station and bunker at Mount Weather in Bluemont that is used as communications stations which relay information to defense and federal government operations in Washington, D.C.

The Loudoun Communication Commission in June also voted unanimously on a motion which found AT&T's facility would not be used for the "provision or improvement of telecommunications services, whether wired, wireless, cable, or broadband to the citizens of Loudoun County," based on public information gathered on the issue.

In withdrawing its commission permit application, however, AT&T's Principal-Technical Architect Scott Rushin said the company's upgrades would have provided Loudoun businesses and residents with "additional opportunities" to receive an array of services including Wi-Fi, high-speed internet and enhanced wireless broadband services -- a service that many western Loudouners are unable to access.

"And, contrary to speculation, the site is not a data center and our planned upgrade would not have converted it into one," Rushin said.

Pulling the plug, for now

Although AT&T is suspending its plans for its facility, some residents are worried that their victory might be short lived.

"I am suspicious that this win was too easy. AT&T must be playing a 'long game.' Certainly they have more cards hidden up their sleeve," Lovettsville resident Melani Carty said,

David Carmichael, also a Lovettsville resident, said that overall he is "very pleased" with AT&T's decision, but is worried the corporation might not be abandoning the project just yet.

The commission permit application item currently remains on the Board of Supervisors June 23 meeting agenda. At that time, supervisors will need to vote on whether to overturn the planning commission's decision based on AT&T withdrawing its application.

County Attorney Leo Rogers explained that if the board turns down the application because it's withdrawn, the applicant can reapply with "essentially the same application or with changes as it deems appropriate."

"If the board were to turn it down for cause, then the applicant would need to revise its application to address those causes," Rogers said.

"Everyone should take note that this fight is not over," Carty warned.

AT&T declined to comment on their decision to withdraw its commission permit application.

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