Even after 18 months, it is still unclear what the applicant has planned for the 2,618 acres of land included in the Wilderness Crossing rezoning proposal — still unremediated of toxic hazards from historic gold mining activities. The details have continued to change, and most recently, the number of homes has been reduced from 6,500 to 5,000 while the industrial square footage has increased by almost five times. Additionally, a variety of industrial uses, including data centers and warehouse/distribution centers, would now be allowed by-right.
All in all, the application allows too much flexibility for the applicant, both in terms of what could be developed AND how the unreclaimed gold mines would or would not be addressed. Our main ask continues to be that the applicant enroll the property in the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Voluntary Remediation Program, a necessary first step to ensuring public and environmental health is protected. Regardless of the pending application, the property should be remediated. It would be reckless to break ground or approve housing on a site with documented mercury contamination.
Applicants requesting a rezoning of properties in the Germanna Wilderness Area Plan (GWAP) are required to meet with the Planning Commission in a work session(s) prior to a public hearing. The Planning Commission recently held its fifth and final work session for Wilderness Crossing on March 2, which means the application is now headed to a public hearing on Thursday, March 23, 2023.
Unfortunately, there are still many unanswered questions, despite hours of back and forth from planning commissioners. This makes it very difficult for the County staff, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors to evaluate consistency with the Comprehensive Plan or for Orange residents to know what is coming to their community. Mercury contamination, demand on the water supply, new road alignments, traffic, and industrialization of the property remain top-level issues with this proposal.
When making any decisions related to the Wilderness Crossing application or other future development of this property, Orange County officials have a duty to ensure that the public’s health, safety and welfare are protected. This isn’t possible if County officials don’t even know what they are dealing with — in other words, until the nature and extent of the toxic legacy left behind from gold mining on the property is better understood and documented.
The applicant’s posture has been, and continues to be, that any assessment or remediation activities would only start within a year of rezoning approval or prior to filing of the site plan (and then only for the undefined “project site”). That cart-before-the-horse approach does not adequately ensure successful remediation of the property, nor does the current proffer statement. A proffer statement becomes part of Orange County’s zoning ordinance when accepted with a rezoning, and would therefore be legally enforceable. As most recently drafted, the applicant only commits to “commence” the voluntary remediation process, not to complete it or to comply with it in the interest of public safety. That language gives the applicant too much discretion as to when and if it will implement and complete the Voluntary Remediation Program.
As outlined in PEC’s joint letter with the Southern Environmental Law Center, completion of site characterization and risk assessment activities prior to the filing of the site plan will give the applicant and the County important information about the status of the site and may help to inform project design and other development decisions.
Demand on water supply
The applicant recently revised the proffer statement to include the dedication of land for two reservoirs. If the County is even contemplating allowing over 4,000 new homes plus five million square feet of data centers, there is much more to be done to ensure adequate water supply than just setting aside land. The permitting process for reservoirs involves numerous agencies and the Rapidan Service Authority (RSA) has estimated that a reservoir(s) might take 7-10 years to be developed. Further, under a revised DEQ regulatory process, Orange County will soon be included with four other counties (Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, and Louisa) in regional water supply planning and permitting decisions. To PEC’s knowledge, the County has yet to take any steps to investigate water supply options with any neighboring counties.
Beyond Wilderness Crossing, there is the more immediate concern that it appears the County has taken no steps whatsoever to augment the water supply for the County, either by creating storage or obtaining additional water from sources outside the County. This is despite the fact that two professional engineering reports assessing the County’s water supply (as long ago as 2007) observed that at some point in the next decade or two, the region will be significantly stressed for available water, owing largely to growth in the Germanna-Wilderness Area. Those reports also concluded that water supply will be further stressed by the increased likelihood of drought conditions. In the most recent work session, Supervisor Lee Frame, one of Orange County’s two representatives on the RSA board, acknowledged the County’s lack of action in the intervening years, stating, “There hasn’t been any pressure to do such [water planning] until we got Wilderness Crossing.” The County now finds itself facing the pressure of possibly thousands of new residential and industrial users, without a plan.
If faced with a severe drought and loss of flow in the river (as happened in 2002), the County will not be physically able to withdraw at the currently permitted levels. The RSA has said water restrictions on users would have to be implemented. Even the proposed reservoirs could only do so much (52-day supply, according to RSA) in a drought scenario, assuming they were to be available in the next 7-10 years. And without completing the Voluntary Remediation Program, the proffer to build reservoirs is questionable, at best, due to contamination from mercury and other potential toxins from the legacy gold mining operations on site.
Impacts to the National Park
The Wilderness Crossing property sits at the gateway to Wilderness Battlefield. And even though the issue didn’t get any attention in the recent work sessions, due to the long list of other problems with this proposal, PEC, along with the National Park Service, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the other members of the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, remains vehemently opposed to the realignment of Rte. 20 that would cut through the National Park, and concerned about the additional traffic impacts the project would bring. Read letter from the National Park Service →
Each year, the Wilderness Battlefield unit of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park hosts an average of 481,000 walkers, joggers, birders and history buffs. The applicant’s traffic study does not consider impacts to the beloved National Park. Heavy area traffic already shapes National Park Service park management decisions. According to the applicant’s traffic study, at buildout, Wilderness Crossing would add 11,000 car trips to area roads just during the peak hours, with thousands more during the rest of the day and evening. The inevitable additional cut-through traffic will crowd low-volume, scenic park roads like Hill-Ewell Drive and Orange Plank Road. Increased traffic significantly threatens the visitor experience on this invaluable, federally-protected and maintained (at no cost to Orange County taxpayers) park land.
Furthermore, it’s not clear that the proposed realignment of Rte. 20, included in the GWAP, is necessary or that it is the only solution to the County’s traffic concerns at the intersection of Rte. 3. When asked about VDOT’s position on the realignment, VDOT officials told the Planning Commission that the applicant has long promoted the idea as part of the plan for Wilderness Crossing. This contradicts what the applicant told the public at their September town hall – “[the realignment] is VDOT’s plan, not ours…” The applicant owns the land needed for the realignment, surrounded on both sides by protected National Park land. The “new” Rte. 20 would require a large land disturbance to the historic battlefield and approximately one mile of new road construction through land identified by Congress as worthy of perpetual protection, but would funnel traffic directly to the front entrance of the Wilderness Crossing retail center, benefiting the applicant. When asked at the work session if the applicant would consider proffering the land to the County or the state for the realignment, or to the National Park Service for protection (and a tax credit for the applicant) – either way, resolving the question of what’s going to happen – the applicant deflected, citing uncertainty around there ever being state funding for the realignment, and that donating to the National Park Service would “limit” the County.
As if the concerns we’ve already raised weren’t enough, we also know that the applicant is proposing five million square feet of industrial data center and warehouse/distribution building space. Because of non-disclosure agreements required by the prospective data center developer(s) and signed by at least some County officials, we don’t know many details about what is being planned. However, we do know that the applicant has included provisions to allow an increase in the height limit for industrial uses from 45 to 80 feet (approximately seven stories), to accommodate industry standards for data centers.
Data centers also require evaporative cooling systems which can use large quantities of water which raises concerns about the impact that demand would have on the Rivanna River (this is in addition to the concerns already raised about water resources needed for the proposed residential development). The County has not planned to ensure that there will be enough water to meet demand for current and future residents in the event of a drought, let alone demands from heavy industrial use. If data centers utilized air-cooled systems instead, there are still concerns about noise impacts. The constant noise is usually at high enough levels to disturb residents and park visitors nearby, as people living near other data centers have increasingly called attention to.
Because data centers also require an enormous amount of electricity, new transmission lines and substations would be required to accommodate multiple data center buildings. According to Dominion Energy, data center buildings use anywhere from 30MW to 90MW of electricity, meaning that multiple buildings would necessitate a new transmission line to deliver power. We have seen no details on how data centers in Wilderness Crossing would tie into the existing transmission grid, which runs on the other side of Lake of the Woods.
The proposal also allows warehouse/distribution centers by-right. This raises a number of different concerns, including the impact from heavy, semi truck traffic coming and going 24/7; on the internal road network and Rte. 3, as well as in the surrounding residential neighborhoods within Wilderness Crossing, adjacent to the proposed industrial areas.
One of the planning commissioners raised an important question: is Wilderness Crossing still able to be presented as a mixed-use development, considering the potential for by-right data centers or warehouse/distribution centers? Would the County consider 700 acres of seven-story industrial development and the attendant truck traffic compatible with an “interconnected pedestrian-oriented neighborhood,” as contemplated by the zoning ordinance?
Whether it’s a mixed-use residential neighborhood, a massive data center campus, or something else, if approved, Wilderness Crossing would forever change Orange County. The applicant’s economic development consultant put it this way, “This is Orange County jumping to a different level in terms of the type of development and what that brings to your community.” This is one of the biggest rezonings in the history of Orange County and we still don’t have a clear proposal for what is going to be developed. For this reason, the County can’t even begin to adequately address concerns about the contamination from gold mining, water supply, traffic and school impacts, impact to the National Park or to nearby residents. The County has the opportunity to mitigate impacts through reasonable proffers, but the applicant has failed to provide specifics about what uses will go where, or suggest adequate mitigation measures. This is a bad deal for Orange County.
It is critically important that County decision-makers hear from you before voting on a proposal that will impact you and your neighbors for decades to come. The Planning Commission’s public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at the Orange County Public Safety Building, 11282 Government Center Drive, Orange, VA 22960. We urge you to speak at the hearing, submit written comments, or email or call your Planning Commissioner and Supervisor. Urge them to vote against this highly speculative proposal.
We hope you will be able to attend this important meeting and make your voice heard! By filling the hearing room and sharing your concerns, you can show County officials that you are paying attention to this issue and that you expect them to make decisions based on what is best for the residents of Orange County.
Additional Public Hearing Details
The meeting will be live streamed on the County’s website for remote VIEWING ONLY: you will not be able to submit comments remotely during the meeting. Written comments may be submitted by mail to Planning and Zoning Services, 128 West Main Street, Orange, VA 22960 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org and must be received by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22.
Depending on the number of speakers there will be a time limit of two to three minutes per speaker. Plan on stating your name, where you live, and your position on the application. It helps to tell a brief personal story or highlight an aspect of this proposal that is particularly concerning to you (traffic, pollution, higher taxes, historic resources, etc.).
Questions? Contact PEC field representative Don McCown at email@example.com.