Conservation Community Priorities for the 2024 General Assembly

Virginia’s long tradition of “off-year” elections being closely watched by the rest of the country continued in 2023, and the results have broadened the partisan divide between the executive and legislative branches of government in the Commonwealth. When Gover-nor Youngkin took office two years ago, ending two terms of Democratic control of the executive branch and bringing with him a Republican majority to the House of Delegates, the Senate remained in Democratic hands. With this election, the House returns for the 2024 General Assembly session with a Democratic majority, further extending the divided government. You will continue to hear and read any number of opinions on what that may mean for various policy agendas, but most of the issues of concern to The Piedmont Environmental Council transcend the partisan divide. We all value and depend on the Commonwealth’s clean water, natural resources, wildlife, agricultural bounty and extraordinary beauty.

PEC has worked with our partners in the Virginia Conservation Network to develop Our Common Agenda, which can be downloaded at, setting forth the legislative goals of the conservation community. PEC staff have authored or co-authored eight of the briefing papers used to educate legislators, their staff and our supporters in the work of achieving these ends. Each of these papers is an example of the thought leadership PEC brings to public policy, and our partnership with VCN gives us the broadest possible base of support.

Inspiring PEC’s work in the upcoming session and for the coming years is our newly adopted 2024-2028 Strategic Plan. You can read or download at Rooted in PEC’s core values, our mission is to protect and restore the lands and waters of the Virginia Piedmont, while building stronger, more sustainable communities. Everything we do at PEC is guided by this mission, including our work helping to craft state policy and influence spending priorities. Perhaps no principle is more important to us in this work than the fact that we value this region’s people and lands, its history and culture, its beauty, and its future.

With the many issues facing Virginia throughout the upcoming session, PEC staff will work with VCN and other allies to testify before the legislature, speak about budget priorities and amendments, and help lead with our strategic plan as our guide. Below are summaries of a few of the issues we’re hoping to advance during the 2024 legislative session.

Photo by Hugh Kenny/PEC

Shaping and Advancing Virginia’s Clean Energy Future

The rapid development of the data center industry in Virginia, and the explosive growth of the energy infrastructure it depends upon, is leading to the most enormous industrialization of Virginia’s landscape in our Commonwealth’s history. The investments and commitment that Virginia has made to a clean, renewable energy-based future stand in the hazard as the power demands of this single industry are projected to double Virginia’s energy needs in just over a dozen years — in direct conflict with our goal of transitioning away from polluting fossil fuels. What’s more, because of the outmoded way energy transmission infrastructure is funded, Virginia ratepayers will help pay for it, by way of our electric bills, bearing the brunt of an industry driven by the internet usage of the entire world.

One of the key focus areas of PEC’s strategic plan is based on managing this change with planning and balancing of conservation values, neither of which have been offered by the data center industry, utilities or state government. PEC feels that Virginia urgently needs a study bill to both evaluate the impacts of the data center market and a better way to manage its energy demands.


We are in a time when the funding resources to accomplish landscape-scale conservation and open space access have never been greater. The federal government is making historic levels of investment in a variety of programmatic sources, such as the Agricultural Land Easement program of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Forest Legacy Program of the U.S. Forest Service, and others.

These opportunities would allow us to reach PEC’s ambitious but achievable goal of adding another 100,000 acres of conserved lands, reaching the benchmark of 30% by 2030. To do so, state resources committed to this goal will need to increase, as will our own efforts in leveraging them to this end. In addition, our long-standing efforts at supporting the protection of wildlife corridors will be a part of our focus.


The nationally recognized SMART SCALE Scoring system for transportation has undergone repeated attacks by officials who want their local projects funded without regard to regional priorities. SMART SCALE has been carefully developed and focused on achieving the best transportation outcomes, such as limiting congestion and improving safety, while also integrating shared means of transit for rail, bus, bike and pedestrian. It also seeks to avoid expensive, trip-inducing major new projects designed more for industry profit than for traffic management or public safety.

Earlier attempts by road construction advocates and some Commonwealth Transportation Board members have focused on removing certain criteria, such as environmental and land use impacts, and increasing others, like congestion relief. This approach would artificially elevate the score of some of the worst projects in our region, like the Bi-County Parkway/Outer Beltway. PEC’s goal is to maintain the SMART SCALE program in as little altered a form as possible.

Land Use

When the region’s local governments make decisions on land use proposals, they consider only the local and site-based impacts. For a variety of reasons, from scale, to jurisdiction, to regulatory realities, and others, they aren’t able to weigh the broader consequences of major proposals like data center developments or roadway projects. Municipalities aren’t equipped to consider that the inevitable outcome of approving millions of square feet of data centers all across the Commonwealth will end up being the enormous impacts of the linear infrastructure needed to connect them to an overtaxed grid. The General Assembly must provide guidance and restrictions for such decision-making.

With conservation opportunities and the means to fund them so great, we find ourselves in a race against time and the accelerating demands of the digital world to protect the values we all hold dear. We want the General Assembly to place meaningful limits on the growth of an industry that both threatens and promises so much, and to balance the equally compelling needs of shifting to renewable energy and protecting working farms and conservation values. PEC will reach out to you as the session gets underway to keep you informed and to seek your support as we find ways forward on these fronts.

This article appeared in the 2023 winter edition of The Piedmont Environmental Council’s member newsletter, The Piedmont View. If you’d like to become a PEC member or renew your membership, please visit