Warrenton Planning Commission votes to pause consideration of Amazon data center – Fauquier Times


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Partly cloudy skies. High 59F. Winds light and variable..
Partly cloudy early followed by cloudy skies overnight. Slight chance of a rain shower. Low 37F. Winds light and variable.
Updated: November 24, 2022 @ 8:33 am
Warrenton Planning Commissioner James Lawrence put forward a motion to put aside indefinitely the commission’s consideration of the Amazon data center proposal.

Warrenton Planning Commissioner James Lawrence put forward a motion to put aside indefinitely the commission’s consideration of the Amazon data center proposal.
More than 60 residents packed Warrenton Town Hall Tuesday night. They were expecting a planning commission public hearing and a possible vote on Amazon’s application to build a data center on Blackwell Road.
They were surprised.
The meeting opened at 7:01 p.m. It ended at 7:10 p.m. as the commission voted unanimously to postpone indefinitely its review until it gets more information.
The move appeared to blindside everyone, including Amazon’s land-use attorney John Foote, who was sitting in the back row of the meeting room. “This came as a complete surprise,” he said, as the crowd disbanded. “We were led to believe there would be a vote tonight.”
“Well, there was a vote,” he added with a wry smile.
“The planning commission did the right thing tonight. They deserve lot of credit,” said Kevin Ramundo, president of Citizens for Fauquier County, which opposes the data center. On Nov. 14 he had sent a five-page letter to the town manager, the mayor and the planning commission, urging them to hold off on considering the application until it was completed and carefully reviewed. (The Piedmont Journalism Foundation, which funded and produced this story, shares a board member, Harry Atherton, with CFFC. Ramundo is listed by PJF as a “sponsor.”)
The planning commission’s decision puts the ball back into Amazon’s court. Foote said he could not say more, but acknowledged he would have to huddle with Amazon representatives regarding next steps. An Amazon spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
A week earlier, 58 Fauquier and Warrenton residents spoke for three and one-half hours in opposition to the data center at a planning commission public hearing on the subject. The Nov. 22  meeting was supposed to accommodate another 20 or so who had not had a chance to speak.
When those speakers had finished, the crowd expected they would hear a presentation from the town’s staff on the application and see the commissioners ask questions. The audience was also anticipating a possible planning commission vote on recommending to the town council whether the special use permit should be awarded or denied. 
But no sooner did Planning Commission Chair Susan Helander declare the meeting open than Vice-chair James Lawrence moved to change the agenda. He offered a motion to postpone consideration of Amazon’s permit application indefinitely “until we get more information.” The motion was seconded by Commissioner Ryan Stewart.
Lawrence then explained his reasoning. First, he argued that an opinion by Town Attorney Martin Crim — saying that the town had to act on the application within 100 days of its first consideration — was flawed. He argued that the law Crim had cited likely did not apply, and if it did, the deadline for action was months in the future since the applicant had delayed proceedings multiple times. He said the greatest harm would come from rushing a decision.
“It’s nice to do things in a timely manner but we still have a job to do,” he said.
He then noted that Amazon’s application was incomplete. Amazon stated on Oct. 28 that its land development and use applications were not executed — “ergo incomplete,” he said. Amazon had not submitted a valid noise impact study, and had asked for a ruling from the town’s zoning administrator in order to submit such a study. She had said she had until Jan. 16, 2023 to respond, which could push the noise study even further down the road.
Third, he said, Amazon had made representations that there would be no overhead transmission lines and no electrical substation on the property and that it would pay for the burial of any power distribution lines from a substation somewhere to the data center. But he noted Dominion Energy has said those decisions rest with others.
Other missing elements, he said, include an accurate tree removal study and illustrated elevations from Lee Highway, the town’s gateway.  
“I’m not passing judgment on the merits of the application. I’m passing judgment on the incompleteness of the application,” he said. “It would be a tragic rush to act on this matter with so much missing information. We as a planning commission have a job to do and that job is not done.”
The commission discussed keeping the public hearing open, but Lawrence suggested that it would be better to hold off until there is a complete application that the public could address.
The group voted 5-0 to postpone meeting on the application until it was complete.
The vote was a rebuke to Amazon, whose original application was filed April 13. The town’s planning staff reacted to the application at the time by asking for 18 more items to be submitted or clarified. As the process wore on, a planning commission work session in August was cancelled because Amazon had not submitted requested documents; Amazon asked for a postponement in September because it wanted to meet with town staffers to try to interpret the town’s strict noise ordinance.
The vote “sends a signal to Amazon that, you know, are they doing all they can to put their best foot forward?” said Commissioner Steve Ainsworth in an interview Wednesday. “What Jim was basically saying, and I think I agree with, is that they haven’t so far. And there’s no need to rush it on our end until they have put everything in order.”
Lawrence’s explanation of his motion, and the vote, also seemed to send a message to the town’s staff, which had scheduled the public hearing and potential vote partly based on Crim’s interpretation of state law. The staff had also worked with Foote to design proposed conditions for approval – especially on the noise issue — that some saw as unpalatable.
Lawrence said at the meeting, “We need to adopt the United States policy toward Russia during nuclear disarmament treaties, that is, trust but verify.”
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Thank you. Hopefully this means that the town will rely on outside, objective analyses going forward, not flawed decisions that have plagued this whole process from its inception and incomplete information from the applicant. No need to list them here. The townspeople have been made aware of them. And what is happening with the applicant’s refrigerated computer server warehouses at the WTC and in PWC should weigh heavily on any future decision by the town. The best indicator of what we would face in town is right nearby. Until that is corrected to the satisfaction of residents nearby, I can’t see how the town can go forward.
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