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Neighbors Of Proposed Amazon Data Center Sue County Officials Who Approved It

Neighbors of a Culpeper County, Virginia, property slated to become an Amazon data center are suing the county officials who approved rezoning the property last month.

An aerial site plan of the land where AWS plans to build data centers in Culpeper County.

Six landowners are asking a Virginia court to overturn the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors’ April decision to rezone a 230-acre property currently in use as a horse farm from agricultural to light industrial use to make way for an AWS data center.

An Amazon subsidiary plans to build a pair of six-story data centers, a 12-acre power station and new power lines on the site. But in their suit, nearby landowners say the board’s decision illegally spot zones the property in violation of local and state law, runs counter to the county’s 2015 comprehensive zoning plan, and is out of character with what has until now been a rural district with a number of significant Civil War historic sites. 

“Instead of looking at horses in pastures, I would be looking at a 50-foot building with lights and security fencing,” Alan Davis, an abutting property owner, said in a written statement first reported by the Culpeper Star-Exponent. Davis says he specifically purchased the property because it was surrounded by the adjoining horse farm on three sides. 

“No landowners can feel safe or be willing to invest in property if the county can be allowed to spot zone whatever they want," he added.

AWS subsidiary Marvell Developments first applied in January to change the zoning for the contested property, currently operating as the Magnolia Equestrian Center in the town of Stevensburg. The initial development would include nearly a half-million acres of data center space in addition to a substation that would be built by Dominion Energy. While Amazon’s proposal would utilize just 22 acres of the property, the entirety of the site would be rezoned for industrial development.  

In their suit, filed Tuesday in Culpeper County District Court, landowners next to the proposed data center site argue that the county violated state and local laws limiting so-called “spot zoning” in approving the developers rezoning request. The nearest areas with more than an acre of industrial zoning are over 6 miles away, the suit states, and the county already has five areas specifically zoned for data center development. Opponents also say the county’s approval of the electrical substation needed for the project circumvented normal government procedure. 

“I’m 76 years old and have lived in Stevensburg all my life, and it is a real shame that the Board is doing this,” said nearby homeowner Ralph Pritt, according to the Culpeper Star-Exponent. “I built my home here because of the beautiful countryside. Now it will be like living in a Wal-Mart parking lot.”

Opponents of the project have also pointed to the array of Civil War historic sites next to the property. Among them is Hansbrough’s Ridge, a wooded area preserved by the American Battlefield Trust that is being considered as part of a Culpeper battlefields park. Critics of the Amazon project say the artifact-filled historic area would have direct site lines to the proposed Amazon data center. 

The approval process for the property has been contentious from the start. As previously reported by Bisnow, Culpeper County’s Planning Commission recommended that the Board of Supervisors reject the rezoning request, citing its inconsistency with the county’s existing development plan. Yet in April, despite vocal opposition from neighbors and preservation groups, county commissioners voted 4-3 to allow the zoning change.  

County supervisors who voted in favor of the project said that projects like Amazon’s are crucial for the county’s economic future and help keep tax rates down for residents. Board Chairman Gary Deal, who voted for the zoning change, suggested that those opposed to the project represented a vocal minority.  

“We have to approve these economic development projects,” Deal said, according to the Culpeper Star-Exponent. “The majority are struggling, worried about gas prices, groceries, inflation at 8%. If we don’t plan for the future, these people will be impacted. My role is to provide services for those people and to plan ahead.”

The fight in Culpeper County echoes similar disputes over data center development that are becoming increasingly common throughout Northern Virginia. Among the most fiercely debated of these proposed developments is the so-called PW Gateway in neighboring Prince William County that, if approved by county officials, would change zoning laws to allow data centers along a 2,000-acre stretch of Prince William County known as the “rural crescent." As in Culpeper County, much of the opposition to the PW Gateway project has stemmed from its proximity to Civil War sites, specifically the Manassas battlefield operated by the National Park Service.