The following text was sent out via email on October 4, 2023. Sign up for PEC email alerts →
Since we last updated you on Amazon’s Warrenton data center, Amazon has spent these couple of months responding to the Town’s first round of comments on its initial site development plan. I want to share with you our concerns about the latest information that has come to light with Amazon’s second, updated submission.
The information is a bit nuanced and technical, but the bottom line is that the Town and Amazon are operating behind a veil of increasing secrecy, potentially setting a disturbing precedent that could exclude public engagement in future data center proposals across the state.
Amazon Responds to Town staff’s comments
You may recall from our last email update that in its initial review of the site development plan, Town staff provided 41 pages of detailed comments and pointed out a number of major omissions:
- Failing to depict on its site development plan noise-emitting equipment (i.e. HVAC units for cooling) and a plan for phased construction of the facility.
- Failing to specify what noise mitigation measures are being implemented per Special Use Permit conditions.
- Failing to depict the intended phasing and timeline of construction and associated noise study for each phase per Special Use Permit conditions.
- Failing to show on the site development plan the location of proposed electrical lines connecting the facility to the grid.
- Failing to provide to-scale building elevation drawings demonstrating compliance with Town Zoning Ordinance requirements for building design.
Rather, members of the community have to go through the extra step of contacting the Town directly to request the latest site development plan submission. And even then, the majority of plan drawings in the new submission are redacted, with much of the mapped area within the property boundary blacked out.
It’s curious and disturbing that the original site development plan was made fully available to the public in May, but that this updated site development plan is not. With so much information redacted, it’s impossible for the public to verify Amazon’s claims that it has addressed the Town’s concerns or to be sure their elected Town officials are holding Amazon accountable to the Special Use Permit conditions.
A Concerning Precedent
In this letter, Amazon claimed that “Due to the unique nature of applicant’s customers, which includes public and private clients, disclosure of this information could impermissibly reveal the location or operation of security equipment and systems of about [sic] the site’s electrical systems, telecommunications equipment and systems, or utility equipment and systems.”
Amazon has failed to set this data center apart from any other data center that has been more forthcoming with site development plan information. In this case, the redaction includes standard information found in any development proposal — site development, landscaping, lighting, stormwater management, erosion and sediment control, and grading plans. Amazon has also redacted details about noise-emitting equipment — one of the community’s biggest concerns — and how it would comply with the Special Use Permit conditions.
There is a public interest in these details, which provide insight into the possible pollution, noise, and other environmental impacts from the data center’s construction and operation of diesel generators, fuel storage tanks, cooling systems, substations, and transmission lines. Thus, we are inclined to believe the real, unspoken reason behind Amazon’s vague and overly broad claim of FOIA exemption is to prevent public scrutiny of its compliance with the Town’s conditions of approval.
Further, we worry this broad redaction, if allowed to stand, will set a precedent in the Commonwealth, essentially paving the way for all private data centers to intentionally obscure critical aspects of their development from public view.
Questions of a Substation
Also in its response letter to the Town, Amazon mentions a “Dominion switch station” mapped on the property, which is a type of substation. However, any type of substation on the property would explicitly violate the Town’s conditions for approval of the SUP. Further, Dominion Energy has other switching stations on its transmission line grid in Prince William and Loudoun counties, but has stated to us that there are currently no plans for a switching station at Blackwell Rd.
Update on the Tree Preservation Plan
One item that Amazon has not redacted is the newly-submitted Tree Preservation Plan. Amazon continues to identify trees for removal that are outside the limit of disturbance, without including a full description of tree removal practices and plans for revegetation post-construction, as requested by Town staff. This plan now also reflects — after the fact — the tree clearing that took place almost six months earlier in February and March 2023, which sparked significant public outcry because of its clear inconsistency with the intent of Special Use Permit Condition 19.
Amazon has attempted to conceal critical details of what will eventually be a highly visible property at the gateway to the Town of Warrenton and within proximity to hundreds of nearby residences.
There is no public hearing on the site development plan; it is now up to Town staff to determine if Amazon has met the conditions of the Special Use Permit and to approve or deny the site development plan in its second round of comments, due Oct. 6.
On your behalf, PEC and our partners will continue to monitor any action on the site development plan and encourage Town staff to hold Amazon to the conditions it has committed to.
We thank you for your continued attention to these issues. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions.
Kevin Kask, AICP
Fauquier Land Use Field Representative
540-347-2334 ext. 7046