Takeaways from the recent Warrenton Amazon Data Center Balloon Test

Drone shots of the balloons from a southern vantage point of the site looking northeast towards Rt.17. Photo by Marco Sanchez/PEC

By now, you’ve probably read about the balloon test conducted by Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc. for the proposed Amazon data center on Blackwell Road last Thursday, Sept. 15. If you had to travel to/from Warrenton on U.S. Route 17 or 15/29 Business or were at a number of different locations in Town you might have even seen the balloons themselves.

Here are photos/renderings of what we saw that day:

rendering of red data center on hillside of grass and trees
View from Northbound Route 17, just past Route 15/29 ramp. *Image for illustrative purposes only. Rendering of potential data center size/location based on test balloon locations. Photo by Marco Sanchez/PEC
rendering of data center in distance between trees and fields
View from Fletcher Drive North Rock Neighborhood. *Image for illustrative purposes only. Rendering of potential data center size/location based on test balloon locations. Photo by Julie Bolthouse/PEC
Video clip of balloons from Northbound Route 17, just past Route 15/29 ramp.

See all of the photos captured that day >>

The balloons may have been placed at the corners of the proposed 220,000-square-foot and 37-foot-high Amazon data center, but as you can see in the drone shot, two of the four balloons were quite close to each other. So it’s not clear whether that was true or not. While the balloon locations are a good starting point for determining the visual impact of the proposed data center, we should all be aware that they do not provide the full picture.

For instance, Amazon’s latest submission to the Town on September 9 failed to provide details on how the height of the balloon test was determined. Thus, we’re not sure if the height of the balloons accurately reflected all building elements that were detailed in that same submission. Amazon’s architects indicated that with the inclusion of a parapet wall (an extension of the wall at the edge of a roof) and other rooftop equipment, the tallest point of the building could reach just under 57 feet — 20 ft above the height of the building itself. It’s unclear if the balloons were at a height closer to 37 or 57 feet.

Additionally, the four balloons cover just a tiny fraction of the surface area of the proposed 220,00- square-foot building — only the outer corners of what would be filled in by the building — and the location of each of the balloons was influenced by the wind that day. 

Most importantly, the balloon test did not include the removal of trees as proposed in the Tree Study prepared by Amazon’s representatives and included in the September 9 submission (see page 13) that shows substantial tree removal, particularly at the northern and western edges of the property, some of the most visible portions of the site to adjacent neighborhoods and Rt. 17.

Despite these limitations, the balloons were still visible from a number of different vantage points in Town. We prepared a viewshed analysis of the 37-foot data center building and presented this map to the community at our August 10 Town Hall. The analysis utilizes LiDAR data that encompasses current groundcover and topography to predict how visible the 37-foot elevation of the building would be within a 3-mile x 3-mile square.

Viewshed analysis across Warrenton for the data center site. The darker orange areas are those of the highest visibility. Map by Watsun Randolph/PEC

As we predicted, the balloons were visible from many of the areas we highlighted in red on our viewshed map, confirming the accuracy of our analysis. Again, it’s likely that the visual impacts are understated given the limitations of the balloon test.

This new information is all the more reason residents should come out and voice their concerns about the detriment this proposal will have on quality of life in the Town and County, including visual impacts of the data center on Warrenton’s gateway, numerous locations in Town, and the rural character that draws visitors and residents alike to this area.

Finally, the coalition, Citizens for Fauquier County, Protect Fauquier, and PEC, plan to hold another town hall on October 26 at the Highland School.

The Amazon Data Centers: Myths and Realities

Highland School Auditorium 
597 Broadview Avenue, Warrenton, Virginia 20186
October 26, 2022 @ 7 – 9 p.m.

Come out to learn more about the Amazon data center proposals and the impact they could have on the Town of Warrenton and the County! We’ll also be sharing the actions you can take to oppose this proposal as we get closer to the Planning Commission’s decision.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to PEC’s Fauquier Field Representative, Kevin Kask, with your thoughts or questions. He can be reached at kkask@pecva.org and (540) 347-2334 ext. 7046.