Town planners split on data center project next to Culpeper National Cemetery
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Town planners split on data center project next to Culpeper National Cemetery

Jun 09, 2023

Eastern View Hill at west, near the Copper Ridge data center proposal, from Mount Pony, overlooking the Equinix data center.

Vietnam veteran Kerry Romesberg spoke during the public hearing.

August 15 Town Culpeper Planning Commission meeting

American Legion Commander Lori Medley speaks at the planning commission meeting about the Copper Ridge data center project.

Stephen Plescow, president of St. Mawes real estate developers based in Culpeper

Historic Eastern View hill overlooks the proposed home for the Copper Ridge data center site.

Site plan for Copper Ridge data center project

Culpeper Town Council will decide whether to again rezone—for the second time since the early 2000s housing boom—key property along East Chandler Street, this time for construction of a six-building data center campus next to the Culpeper National Cemetery Annex.

Former site of the planned, but never built, Copper Ridge age restricted village, the 116 acres is currently zoned Residential-2, per its rezoning some 15 years for the 490-home project.

Current developers of the project are seeking industrial zoning for the Copper Ridge data center project, including a substation.

The Town Planning Commission recently split its vote on the project after hearing public comments against it from veterans concerned about the industrial impacts to the sanctity and silence of the cemetery. The vote was 2-2 at the August 15 meeting for a motion to approve after longtime planning commissioner John Flanagan, who works for the power company, recused himself from the vote and discussion.

The motion failed due to the tie vote.

Commissioner John Cerio made the motion to approve, seconded by Town Councilwoman Meaghan Taylor. Voting against the rezoning was commission chairman Ian Fitzsimmons and member Jeffrey Mitchell. The matter now goes to town council for its consideration, without a recommendation.

Impacts to Culpeper National Cemetery was top of everyone’s mind. Vietnam veteran Kerry Romesberg spoke during the public hearing. He is junior vice commander and part of the honor guard at the Culpeper VFW.

“I’ve attended hundreds of funeral at the cemetery,” he said. “I’ve seen the faces, I’ve heard the sobs, seen the people coming there to celebrate the life of the deceased. They want to see the folding of the flag. They want to hear the rifle volley, the playing of Taps and they want to hear the sound of silence. I beg you not to ruin the sanctity of this sacred place.”

Culpeper American Legion Commander Lori Medley also spoke, reading a letter from members opposing the data center project due to its location. Veterans put their lives on hold and at risk to serve their country, she said, and deserve a peaceful final resting place.

“The sounds and smells of industrial applications do not reflect a peaceful resting place,” she said. “Veterans deserve better. Deny the rezoning.”

Medley later said the Legion was not opposed to residential development next to the cemetery as was previously approved and planned.

Cerio, in making his motion to approve the rezoning, said he too is a veteran.

“My wife is buried in Section 11 of the National Cemetery and will view these buildings,” he said.

The data centers will be be 900-feet away, he said, while if developed as houses the property buffer is just 10-feet away: “I don’t think that would be very good for the cemetery, and would distract a lot more—a people on their back deck playing music or having a BBQ,” Cerio said.

Taylor said she struggled with her decision to support the data center. There are so many what-ifs in the future, like the housing market crashing again and 490 homes sitting empty, she said.

“Data centers right now are sort of the future,” Taylor said. “They are going all around us, are going everywhere. The applicant here has just done about everything they can to respond to the people’s wishes, our requests, thought out of the box a little bit.”

The councilwoman said she respected everyone’s comments, but felt the data center project was a good use for the property.

Representing the applicant, Stephen Plescow, president of St. Mawes real estate developers based in Culpeper, said the Copper Ridge data center project was unlike the one up the road being developed by Peterson Companies.

The other project is more remotely located and does not have as many neighbors, he said. Plescow said they respect the setting and solemnity of the cemetery; the substation will be situated 450-feet away from the boundary line, the closet spot of the project.

He said it was their top priority to buffer and appropriately screen the National Cemetery with a minimum 100-feet buffer along with keeping existing trees.

Besides proximity to the cemetery, other concerns during public comments were from neighbors of nearby 98-home Mountain Brook Estates, across the road next to the town power plant. The homeowners association president spoke about noise, traffic, history and impact to their property values.

Plescow said they listened to the public in lowering the building height of data centers along Chandler Street from 75-feet-tall to 40-feet so as to reduce visual impacts at Mountain Brooke.

Primary access to the site will be off of McDevitt Drive, according to the developer. Once operational, each data center will employee 30-40 people for potentially a total of 200-250 working there in the future.

Noise levels during the day from the complex will be limited to 60 decibels during the day and 55 at night, Plescow said. He said there are no cemeteries, historic resources or endangered species on the site.

“We don’t see this as an industrial complex like a smokestack use, it’s high technology, relatively clean, use of emergency generators, but if it was residential with 490 homes, we’d probably have at least 490 cars coming out and generating fumes, too,” Plescow said.

The commission did not discuss a letter in the record from noted Culpeper Civil War historian Bud Hall designating land in the area, on which an adjacent data center complex is planned, as the past location of the colonial house at Eastern View. It sat on a prominent hill used by Robert E. Lee as headquarters.

Building data center complexes will ruin the corridor’s longstanding protected views, Hall said.

“Down in the middle of our expansive ‘Culpeper Basin,’ Eastern View Hill indeed overlooks the very heart of the ‘Civil War in Culpeper.’ In other words, a hill that once served crucial military purposes could today serve as an interpretive park, visually exhibiting and explaining the most devastating and threshold experience in Culpeper County’s storied history,” Hall wrote. “There is in fact not a better place in Culpeper County via which we can graphically interpret the ‘Civil War in Culpeper’ and its tragic consequences.”

There is electrical and data center infrastructure in the area, said the data center developer at the meeting, in stating it was the right spot for the project.

“Virginia has the most data centers on the planet, is part of the economic plan for the state, the governor is a proponent, it’s our driving industry. We are not gambling on this project. Virginia is a data center state,” Plescow said.

Other concerns came Mountain Brook Estates neighbors with homeowners association president Jeff Loeffler speaking about noise, traffic and impact to their property values.

The noise level from his deck on Electric Avenue, next to the town power plant, is 75-decibels, said Loeffler. When homeowners moved into the development next to the generation plant, many went to the town and asked what they could do about the noise, Loeffler said.

“Their final word was, ‘We were here first.’ That’s kind of the way we feel too in our development—we were here first,” he told the planning commission.

Community Development Director Andrew Hopewell noted the town’s industrial zoning district has specific noise regulations based on decibels and frequency band, but that it’s difficult to track and enforce. He said violations of the noise ordinance is a class 3 misdemeanor.

Mitchell, prior to the vote, noted the applicant had been very responsive and adapted to meet the needs of the public.

“I hear the veterans and having visited the site you can feel the sanctity of that location,” he added.

Mitchell said he has bicycled a trail in Loudoun County near data centers.

“I saw what they looked like when not protected, what they sound like and how they changed the trail,” he said. “I don’t want to see that coming to Culpeper.”

Fitzsimmons said he wrestled with his decision and consulted his conscience in voting no. The data center project is not consistent with the comprehensive plan, he said. Town Council abruptly passed incentives for the area in designating it a tech zone last December without proper public process, Fitzsimmons said, calling it “an opportunistic maneuver.”

“We don’t really understand all the issues, the noise issue,” Fitzsimmons said. “The best path is to not act in haste on a project of this consequence.”

Sarah Parmelee with Piedmont Environmental Council asked to deny.

“The data center industry is a nascent industry for the town and one that is known to be problematic especially when adjacent to sensitive resources and residential areas,” she said in remarks. “We urge the Planning Commission to consider what is at risk with approving 4.3 million square feet (roughly the equivalent footprint of 23 Walmart Supercenters) of an industry that the Town of Culpeper has never had to regulate or enforce.”

Finally, Korean War veteran Larry Corbin, of Mitchells, at age 93, asked via letter read by Cindy Burbank of Hero’s Bridge, to not approve the rezoning. He said his beloved wife is buried in the cemetery.

“I visit her grave there almost every day and I will be buried there when my time comes,” Corbin stated. “Please do not recommend approval of a massive noisy data center next to this sacred place.”

The burial ground should always be a quiet and peaceful place, he said.

“This site is fundamentally wrong for a data center,” Corbin said, calling the proposal a desecration. “Please don’t sell the town’s soul out for a data center looming over the souls of veterans.”

Allison Brophy Champion: 540/825-4315

[email protected]

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