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Brandy Station data-centers case deferred; Culpeper planners eye project's scope

The county Planning Commission gave mostly positive feedback last week in getting a first look at a rezoning request for a speculative data-centers project on 88 acres in a county technology zone just south of the Village of Brandy Station.

Applicant David Martin decreased the size of the three proposed computer-server warehouses on northern Brandy Road by nearly 200,000 square feet from his initial application when bringing the case before planners Wednesday in the county supervisors’ boardroom.

“We don’t have a builder ready to break ground,” Martin said in giving his presentation. “The main goal is to prepare this property to get the interest of data center builders.”

The 765,000-square-foot proposal, down from the initial 945,000-square-foot ask, would sit in the eastern portion of Martin’s larger 351-acre property, all in a county technology zone, with access to fiber optics and power.

The application includes construction of an electric substation on site, likely large enough to serve future users. Connecting to the recently upgraded Dominion high-voltage line in the area is the best case scenario, Martin told the planning commission. Once there is a builder, he plans to sell the land, at which point the project would be handled by the developer.

Development analysis: upper limitThe entire parcel could be developed over time with more than a dozen data centers covering more than 4 million square feet, as shown in a February 2021 development analysis by engineers for the Martin project.

Martin said on Friday the analysis map, titled Brandy Station Technology Park, was not being actively marketed by his real estate agent and was not a realistic scenario at this time.

The map breaks the land into three sections showing it fully developed and potential square footage on each. The document was not shared with the planning commission Wednesday, though members asked what a full build-out might look like.

Asked about that on Friday, Martin said in a phone conversation the development analysis was an “upper limit,” the maximum somebody could achieve. He said the concept was not realistic and those types of densities could not be achieved.

Asked about how much land he would potentially sell to data center developers, Martin said only what the county supports.

He said he would not mind living next to a data center, and that any future requests would require additional rezoning requests on a case-by-case basis. It makes more sense to have a data center campus, Martin said.

The landowner added his other parcels contain “much more opportunity” for distance from neighbors and with fewer wetlands. As for the initial application, he opted for a less-dense version, Martin said, mentioning a tremendous amount of wetlands the project will navigate, with review from Virginia DEQ and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Once you start building, you see (the projects) become less dense,” he said in the phone call.

The rezoning request was deferred until next month as the planning commission had a lot of questions. Areas of concern or to be further addressed included construction traffic, density, power, economic impact, community impact, traffic improvements, environmental impact and future scope.

Project specificsMartin is president of AttoTek Inc., a software development firm located on the property, along with his residence of nearly 20 years.

Of the 88 acres he envisions for the data center project, 50 acres is zoned commercial services and 38 acres is rural area.

Located just north of Virginia State Police Culpeper Division headquarters, the mostly green land is now in use as low-impact agricultural. An estimated 10 percent wetlands, including a pond, comprise the larger parcel, in ag and rural areas zoning.

Martin had 50 acres rezoned to commercial services 20 years ago and the entire parcel, since 2006, has been in a technology “opportunity” zone, making it eligible for substantial tax incentives from the county when developed.

Culpeper attorney John J. Butch Davies III represented Martin for the initial rezoning and is back on the case.

“This plan did not occur overnight,” he told the planning commission Wednesday. “It’s been evolving.”

There are several other sites in the county now under consideration that can be used for data centers, Davies said. Martin’s land is a little bit different, he added, because it’s in an area approved as a tech zone, one of five in the county along the 29 corridor.

The contained campus proposed on Martin’s land would be bounded by the railroad and Hoffman Lane, a close neighbor of Shiloh Baptist Church.

The data centers would be accessed at two points on Bel Pre Rd., along which Martin said he held a 50-foot right-of-way. This is a major advantage for the expected road widening that will result for for the data centers, he said.

Davies said a berm and expanded forestry buffers are in the plans to expand setbacks with neighbors on the eastern edge. As for getting power to the site, Martin wants to minimize impacts to his neighbors, the lawyer added.

“There are interested parties in this property,” Davies said. “The real challenge is to have that sensitivity David has, he been there for a number of years and is only asking for a portion to be rezoned.”

Residents weigh inStevensburg resident Don Haight Jr. was the only person to speak at the public hearing, generally in favor of the Martin project. He railed against the board of supervisors for its recent rezoning approval of 243 acres from agricultural to light industrial along Route 3 for Amazon data centers.

Neighbors have since sued the county over the two buildings that will cover 445,000 square feet. That property, a horse farm, neighbors the colonial manse at Salubria overlooked by Hansbrough Ridge on the Brandy Station Battlefield, site of North America’s largest cavalry battle 159 years ago.

“We must be living in some type of Twilight Zone,” Haight told planners. He referenced comments made in April by board of supervisor members in approving the Amazon project that there were no other adequate places for data centers in the county. Haight spoke up for protecting farmland.

“Industrial spot-zoning will never be allowed in Culpeper County…Many battles have been fought on these hallowed grounds—this is the latest one,” Haight said, warning of more lawsuits.

Longtime Culpeper resident Desy Campbell asked many questions about the speculative project via email to the county.

“We need to know what this looks like; who are the investors, what the financial benefits to them, how long is the term of investment, etc. Is there a decommissioning process at the end of the term? What happens when technology changes? When do they plan developing the remaining acres? How long will it take to get actual power to the site’s power-thirsty buildings? How do they account for wetlands and large pond? How does a 4-foot-tall landscaped berm even begin to shield 45-foot-plus tall buildings?” she asked.

AttoTek has much information to divulge before the Board of Supervisors can review the request, Campbell said.

Planners weigh inPlanning commission member Keith Price asked Martin to reach out to leaders at Shiloh Church about the project, to which the landowner agreed. Price told Martin the data centers would have a considerable impact on the view shed, especially bringing the utility lines to feed the site.

The commissioner mentioned the Battlefields State Park approved by the General Assembly.

“Could have a huge impact,” Price said.

Historic groups have not opposed the Martin rezoning as they did in large force for the Amazon project. Martin told Price his project would not impact Fleetwood Hill.

Planning Commission member Nate Clancy commented that data centers are land hogs.

“They need a lot of space. Is the intention to expand?” he asked Martin at the meeting.

The landowner responded that once power is in place the property would attract interest from others. Starting small is the way to go, but having a campus is better than one or two data centers in multiple locations, Martin said.

Planning commission member Lance Kilby complemented the proposal for its economic development potential, being located in a tech zone and in compliance with the comprehensive plan. He inquired about the size of the substation.

Martin said to the best of his knowledge, one substation would service the entire property. He mentioned the pond and 37 total acres of wetlands on the 350-acre site.

Vice Chairwoman Cindy Thornhill said a lot of effort was put into the application.

“The concept is ok, but it doesn’t satisfy me. It makes me ask more questions,” she said, starting with the level of water runoff from the data center roofs and managing that.

Bel Pre is a very rural road, Thornhill went on, asking if the taxpayers were expected to pay to widen it for his project.

“How do you get them to do more for the county?” she asked of data center developers. “What are we going to get in return for other some problems to solve?”

Martin replied they had not yet been able to quantify economic development ramifications, and said they are in negotiation with a builder and VDOT on road improvements.

Chairman Sanford Reaves commented the proposal “kind of takes my breath away a little bit,” related to impacts on neighbors and power poles to get there.

“1, 2, 3 (data centers) kind of got my attention there,” Reaves said.

Once the site is prepped, with power on site, “It’s best to get the most you can get,” Martin replied. “1, 2, 10, 12 data centers are better to have located on a single campus.”

Once the power infrastructure is in, it can supply one, or 12-15, the landowner said.

Reaves asked for a balloon test to determine visual impact of the high-voltage power poles.

“We do want to be as neighborly as we possibly can be. This is a city to me,” Reaves said. “Seems like will be a huge something there.”

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