Wilderness Crossing: Breadth of Rezoning and FOIA Results Prompt New Concerns

aerial photo of orange county where wilderness crossing is proposed
Aerial photo of the site where Wilderness Crossing is proposed.

In our most recent blog post on Wilderness Crossing, we laid out in detail a number of our concerns with this sprawling development proposal. We told you about the toxic legacy left behind from gold mining on the property, and why we think the project is too big for rural Orange County — bringing thousands more car trips, straining water supplies and impacting the protected Wilderness Battlefield.

In this post, however, we want to highlight how ridiculously broad this proposed rezoning would be. We’d also like to share some important information gathered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request PEC submitted to Orange County in October 2022.

What are they planning to build?

We’ve been following Wilderness Crossing for the past 16 months and we’ve seen the proposal revised several times. The latest revision reduced the number of homes, but significantly increased the non-residential square footage and added a variety of industrial uses, including data centers, by-right. This is one of our overarching concerns: we don’t really know what is being planned here.

The latest proposal is all over the map, allowing anything from residential to industrial uses and a lot in between. What’s the end result? The project could be a sprawling subdivision of 5,000 homes, a massive data center campus requiring new transmission lines to bring in power, or both! This flexibility is great for the developer, but makes it very difficult for the County staff, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors to evaluate the proposal for consistency with the comprehensive plan, ensure potential impacts are mitigated, and protect public health, safety and welfare. It also means Orange residents aren’t being given a fair chance to evaluate a proposal and weigh in.

Data centers have been quietly proliferating across the region, leading to significant community-level impacts. 

To get a better picture of what might be envisioned for the Wilderness Crossing site in this regard, we submitted a FOIA request to Orange County for relevant correspondence from January 2020 through September 2022.

The chain of emails we acquired, which are linked below, shed light on the economic development prospects the County has been pursuing. Just as we have seen recently in Warrenton, Prince William, and Culpeper, Orange County staff and officials appear to have signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and have been having quiet conversations with data center developers.

Developer’s General Development Plan showing possible by-right uses, including data centers (in pink and purple).

Concerning takeaways from the FOIA response:

  • February 2022 – An unnamed “prospect” inquired in an email to Orange County’s Director of Economic Development about the location of existing high-capacity transmission lines near the Wilderness Crossing property that could serve the prospect’s suggested 50-60 MW load. (The county’s answer was that a new transmission line of at least 1 ½ miles would be needed to reach the property.) [see p. 27-28]
  • March 2022 – In an email to two County Supervisors, the County Administrator reported that his office has been contacted by an unnamed data center developer. The County Administrator expressed the belief that such a use would be inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan. At least one of the Supervisors disagreed, and a meeting between the Administrator, the two Supervisors, and the Director of Economic Development was scheduled. [see p. 3-4]
  • June 2022 – In an email, presumably to the same unnamed prospect (referred to as “Project Tricycle” in an internal draft of the email), the Director of Economic Development reported that County staff are working with the Wilderness Crossing developer to make adjustments to proposed land use maps to allow for more industrial/non-residential acreage than the original proposal asked for. Staff were also said to be working on a zoning text amendment to remove height restrictions from the Planned Development-Mixed Use zoning district. [see p. 10, 19]
  • August 2022 – Emails from the unnamed prospect included requests for certain County staff members and two of the five Supervisors to sign NDAs. A subsequent email from the Director of Economic Development confirmed that all the requested parties had signed. Days later, the possibility of extending the NDA to the entire Board is mentioned. (Signing an NDAs could limit what could be shared with the public). [see p. 7, 18-19, 23]
  • September 2022 In an amended submission to the County, some proposed residential areas of Wilderness Crossing were opened up to include “flex/light industrial” uses and the proposed land use chart includes data centers as a by-right use. [see p. 1-2]

Some of the records requested through the FOIA were exempt and/or redacted pursuant to section 2.2-3705.6 (3) of the Code of Virginia, so we still may not have all the information or context we need to have a full picture of the vision for this proposal. These emails, taken in combination with changes to the land use chart allowing data centers by-right, indicate that Wilderness Crossing is now being targeted for data center development.

Here are some questions we’d still like answers to:

  • Who is the prospect interested in data center development and how would their project tie into the  transmission grid?
  • What is “Project Tricycle” and why the secretive name?
  • Who has signed NDAs with this prospect and how does that impact what the County is able to share with the public?
  • If a data center(s) is approved, what related transmission lines and substations would be necessary?
  • Depending on the type of cooling system used, data centers can use an enormous amount of water. We already have serious concerns about the potential residential demand on the Rapidan River. A heavy industrial use could exponentially increase that demand. Has the County discussed water usage with the prospect and/or planned to ensure that there will be enough water for current and future residents?
  • Has the County discussed if residential areas within the project would be compatible with the potential for over 700 acres of by-right data center development? For example, depending on the equipment used, data centers can be very noisy. Has the County discussed how noise impacts to neighbors would be prevented?
  • Is the proposal still able to be labeled a mixed-use development, considering potential for data centers or distribution centers? Would the County consider these uses compatible?

We encourage you to review the FOIA response yourself and ask your elected officials these questions. 

The public process so far:

The Orange County Planning Commission is currently reviewing the Wilderness Crossing rezoning application in a series of work sessions (recordings of January 5 and January 19 Planning Commission meetings under “Most Recent Events”), which puts this proposal at a critical juncture. If the County chooses to vote yes on the application as it stands today, it is unclear if it is approving a mixed-use housing development or a massive data center campus. From mercury contamination, to traffic and school impacts, to transmission lines, noise, and more, this proposal can’t be properly evaluated without more information.

Ways you can help:

The Wilderness Crossing proposal may be the largest land use decision in Orange County’s history. It is so important that the decision-makers hear from you — their constituents, the people they’re serving — before voting on a proposal that will impact residents for decades to come. Email your Planning Commissioner and Supervisor now to urge them to vote against this highly speculative proposal.