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One Controversial Loudoun Data Center Project Approved, Another Scaled Back After Opposition

The political back-and-forth over data center development in the industry’s largest market has continued over the last two weeks as one controversial project in Loudoun County, Virginia, gained approval while another — perhaps the most contentious in the county’s history — is being scaled back. 

The Loudoun County site where Compass Data Centers is planning the True North data center campus.

Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors narrowly approved zoning changes April 5 that will allow data centers to be built on 40 acres of previously undeveloped land in the town of Sterling, Data Center Dynamics reported. The approval came despite recommendations from county planning officials to reject the changes.

Compass Data Centers, the developer planning the True North data center campus — a project that prompted fierce opposition from environmental groups over the fate of an ecological feature on the site called a mafic barren — asked county officials Wednesday to approve plans to dramatically scale back the project after failing to find a tenant. Although the reduced size of the project has been welcomed by environmental groups, the application drew the ire of elected officials who say they were misled during the initial application process. 

“If you come into my house and steal $100, and then ask me do I want $20 back, I’m going to say yes, can I have $20 back — that’s what’s happening with the environmental community right now,” said County Supervisor Phyllis Randall, according to LoudounNow. “So, they’re not on board. They feel like they have no choice, because you’re using the mafic barren as a fuzzy little hostage, which is not the same thing.”

Spot zoning changes for data centers have become a growing political flashpoint in Loudoun County and across Northern Virginia. The region is the largest data center market in the world by a significant margin, but available land with zoning that permits data center development has become increasingly rare. 

In Sterling, a developer operating under the name Long Drive Land Co. received approval for such a spot zoning change from county officials earlier this month for a project that would place 685K SF of data center space on a wooded crescent that surrounds the 1757 golf club. The development, branded as the Dulles 28 Technology Park, was opposed by county planning officials, who argued that the proposal was in “direct conflict” with the county’s development plan that was finalized in 2019. 

“The more we say yes to data centers, the more they’re going to squeeze out the type of use that we have envisioned right here in the suburban mixed-use place type,” said County Supervisor Juli Briskman, who voted against the project, according to LoudounNow.

It is not known who the end user of Dulles 28 would be. Equinix, Vantage, Evoque, CloudHQ, Digital Realty and Stack all have data centers nearby, according to Data Center Dynamics.

While pushback to data centers is becoming more common in the areas surrounding Virginia’s Data Center Alley, local officials cite the battle over Compass Data Centers’ True North project as being particularly fraught. Approved in 2018 as 708K SF of data center space on 106 previously undeveloped acres, the project sparked public opposition and protest from environmental groups concerned about the potential destruction of a unique wetland ecological system known as the Northern Piedmont mafic barren. 

Now, Compass has returned to the county board looking to revise the project with a new plan that would eliminate the two buildings closest to the controversial wetlands and combine three other buildings planned on the property. The overall footprint of the project would be reduced to 625K SF, and the company has offered to take measures to protect the mafic barren. 

Representatives for Compass say the changes reflect shifts in the data center industry, and that the company has been unable to find tenants interested in the project as previously designed. This drew the ire of some county officials. Compass had claimed to have a tenant on board during the initial approval process, although representatives for the developer now say that was simply a “handshake deal.” 

Debate surrounding Dulles 29 and True North capped a two-week period that also saw more organized pushback to data center development in neighboring Prince William County, where a group of homeowners associations are joining forces to oppose rural data center projects that are springing up with growing frequency in the region.