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‘Zombie’ data center project still has life in Caroline County

by | May 12, 2024 | ALLFFP, Caroline, Government, Technology

Kevin Collins thought he could finally breathe easy. 

The Caroline County resident had been fighting a proposed data center project approximately 1,000 feet from his Ruther Glen home off Jericho Road since January 2023. 

The proposed 900-acre campus on Mount Airy Drive along the North Anna River was defeated twice by the county’s planning commission and once by the board of supervisors. 

After those three setbacks, the project was reintroduced last August as Madison District Supervisor Clay Forehand called for reconsideration.  

“I call it the zombie project,” said Collins, “because it keeps popping up out of the grave on us.” 

The project was revitalized as the April 9 board of supervisors meeting included a request for a public hearing to amend the comprehensive plan and establish the Mt. Airy Planning Innovation, Research and Technology area.  

The amendment, which would allow data center-type developments off Jericho Road, was pulled from the consent agenda and Collins was relieved — but only temporarily. The project is back on the agenda for Monday night’s board of supervisors meeting. 

The board will decide whether to amend the county’s comprehensive plan for the Mount Airy Drive project. If it chooses to do so, it will then consider a rezoning application filed by VALCO for a 250-acre data center park on Jericho Road.  

VALCO attorney Ann Cosby, whose client is seeking to develop both properties, wrote a letter to the board requesting public hearings on the comprehensive plan amendment and the rezoning application on the same date of June 18 because the issues are “inextricably related.” 

“We believe it is essential for the board to have the opportunity to fully understand the scope and benefits of VALCO’s proposed data center park prior to acting on the PIRT amendment so that it can make a fully informed decision on both items,” Cosby wrote. 

Collins, who mounted a write-in campaign for board of supervisors in the Reedy Church District last fall before falling short to incumbent Reginald Underwood, said he was taken aback when he saw a sign near his home that discouraged data centers in rural areas. That was his first inclination regarding the Mount Airy Drive project. 

Collins moved to the bucolic area of the county in 2020 after living in the Ladysmith Village subdivision for several years. 

“When we found out about this, we were completely blindsided,” Collins said. “We came from Ladysmith Village because we knew we didn’t want to live in an urban development area. We knew what the future growth would look like. We were blown away when we heard about the project because of where it’s located.” 

The property is owned by Litt Thompson of Thompson Family Office, an investment management firm in Richmond. Thompson also owns the land in Carmel Church associated with the proposed DC South smart city and train station that was approved in 2010 but has yet to come to fruition. 

Collins said the project should not have been revisited after it was voted down. 

Forehand said he brought the matter back for reconsideration because, in his opinion, the project will benefit the county. Forehand said data centers provide more value and tax revenue than anything else that could be built in the county. 

“A single campus of data center buildings would be the equivalent tax benefit as eight to 10 one-million square-foot distribution center buildings without the 18,000-plus trucks a day crowding our roads and exits,” Forehand said. “I’m in favor [of data centers], as long as it can be done the right way, where the reasonable impacts to residents are minimal or nonexistent.” 

Forehand said for the past 15 years, he worked for companies that did electrical work in data centers. He said that while he is sensitive to the concerns of Collins and other neighbors, his stance is that setbacks and buffers will mitigate any issues. He said each building is expected to have 30 to 40 employees with an average salary of $100,000 per year. 

Forehand said the initial decision was rushed, and more information was available detailing the entire scope of the project when he asked for reconsideration. Three other supervisors agreed.  

“Some [concerns] that have been brought up, I don’t feel like are valid because they’re comparing this project to data centers in Ashburn,” Forehand said. “My thoughts on these types of campuses are they’ll be there but you’ll never see them, you’ll never hear them, you’ll never smell them … They would be hundreds of feet from the river.” 

Not all the supervisors are on board. Jeff Sili, who represents the Bowling Green District blasted the project in a statement last fall, and his position has not changed. Sili said he received dozens of phone calls from county citizens regarding the project and he noted that nearly 400 Freedom of Information Act documents were released questioning board procedures.

He suggested the board rewrite its bylaws to prevent future back-to-back votes on the same issue. 

Sili apologized to Jericho Road residents because they believed the data center proposals were dead after a vote last June. He said the tenor and tone of the correspondence between county officials and the developers’ attorneys would lead one to think developers are in control of the county. 

Sili said he understands if citizens do not trust data center proposals, particularly after FOIA requests revealed that VALCO’s attorneys wrote a motion that he interpreted as calling on taxpayers to pay for water and sewer for the Jericho Road project. Sili said that is a “non-starter” for him.  

“I cannot vote to approve a rezoning and comp plan change every time a developer finds a good deal on land in Caroline,” Sili said. 

The agenda for Monday also includes a public hearing on the fiscal year 2025 budget, which shows a one-cent real estate tax increase to 78 cents per $100 of assessed value.  

Another data center proposal from Thompson called Carmel Church Data Hub is also on the agenda. 

The developer is requesting an amendment to existing proffers and development regulations for Carmel Church Station, which is zoned planned mixed-use development within the Urban Development Area of the Carmel Church Community Plan. The proposed amendments to the proffers would allow a data center project to develop in phases. The planning commission recommended approval of the amendments. 

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