Sunday, June 20, 2021

End of the Rural Area

Two proposals that potentially will eliminate the Rural Area are winding their way though the system towards a Board of County Supervisors vote. The first proposal is the revival of the Bi-County parkway, this time called the Va. 234 Bypass. The second proposal is from Maryanne Gahaban and Page Snyder. The two Rural Area large landowners are pushing a proposal to convert almost 800 acres of agriculture zoned land (in which they each have significant ownership) to industrial data centers. They are calling their proposal the PWC Digital Gateway and would add up to an additional 20 million square feet of data center space to Prince William’s existing 5 million square feet. In this rezoning the value of the land would go from about $20-$40 million to $800 million to $1.3 billion dollars.

The Board of County Supervisors or at least the Democratic block on the Board seem inclined to go along with both proposals. The three Republicans (Candland, Lawson and Vega) have already come out against the Bypass and development of data centers in the Rural Area.  If these proposals pass, this will eliminate the protections that the Rural Crescent provides to our regional water resources and the protection from increasing rates the Rural Crescent provides to the Prince William County  water and electricity rate payer from the expense of building the infrastructure to deliver water, sewage and power to the rural area so that data centers can have cheap water and electricity and the specific property owner can get a billion dollar windfall.

Though, it is often believed that when you own land you can do what you want with the land, but that is not true. Zoning determines use and value of land. It is not in the public interest to allow anyone to put a hazardous waste dump in their backyard, build a manufacturing plant along the Occoquan, mine uranium next to the water supply for the county or other undesirable activities. Is it in the public interest to build 20 million square feet of data centers in the rural area where just a few landowners make hundreds of millions of dollars?

To evaluate the Rural Crescent you must consider its impact on water resources and water ecology. While the Rural Crescent may have been the wrong policy to preserve our agricultural heritage, it has been a success at preserving water resources, protecting our groundwater and supporting the ecosystem of our county. In addition, continued redevelopment of areas with preexisting infrastructure would allow Prince William County to improve storm water management in those areas and reduce sediment and nutrient pollution under the EPA mandated TMDL as well as revitalize older areas of the county and support of sustainable development. The Rural Crescent is about water, and the costs to build out the infrastructure to support the rural area and replace the groundwater resources diminished by development.

Prince William Service Authority, PWSA, obtains most of the drinking water they distribute in the county wholesale from Fairfax Water. Besides purchased water from Fairfax Water, PWSA operates the Evergreen water wells that draw water directly from the Culpeper Basin and thousands of home owners have private wells that also draw from the aquifer. The Virginia-American Water Company also distributes water purchased from Fairfax Water. Any changes in land use have the potential to negatively impact groundwater, the watershed and the Occoquan Reservoir and significantly increase demand for water.

Back in 2009 Amazon estimated that a 15 megawatt data center can require up to 360,000 gallons of water a day- that is equivalent to more than 1,000 households. In addition, their power usage is a 24/7 load- a base load not easily replaced by renewable power sources and this proposal is to quadruple the data centers currently existing in the county. Northern Virginia reportedly has 166 data centers. This represents 1,027 megawatts of power capacity-more than anywhere in the nation. Sixty percent of the currently planned data centers nationally are to be built in Northern Virginia. That represents a tremendous ongoing demand for power and water. By the way, despite the PWC Digital Gateway proposed site being near to the existing transmission lines, the existing infrastructure is inadequate to supply the power need of 20 million square feet of data center-which is equal to all the data centers (including those under construction) in Loudoun County.  Based on estimates from the PEC and Greenpeace that would require between 4.5 to 6 gigawatts of power. That is the power for 1-1.5 million households. Prince William County has fewer than 150,000 households currently.

While I would prefer to see the Rural Area left open space, I do not know if that is even possible with our current elected Board of Supervisors. Another proposal under consideration by the Board of Supervisors is a TDR program. In a TDR program a landowner sells his or her development rights to a developer leaving the land behind that can only be used for open space or agriculture. The TDR program identifies sending areas, the Rural Area where the rights can be purchased, and receiving areas where the rights can be used. Rationally, receiving areas would be within or adjacent to well developed areas with roads, power connections, water and sewer infrastructure as well as fiber optic cable connections.  Normally, these programs are only used to increase the density of housing in receiving areas and preserve open space.

Optimizing the “demand” for development rights in the receiving areas was found in practice to be tricky. For the TDR market to thrive and accomplish the locality’s policy goals, demand for development in receiving areas must exceed the supply of “exported” development rights from sending areas and they must be have adequate economic valuable to justify the effort to accumulate and consolidate development rights.

The solution for Prince William County is obvious. All TDRs in the Rural Area should be banked by the county for convenience of the purchasers. The TDRs must grant the right to develop additional data centers outside the current data center overlay district, and preferably also outside of the Rural Area where infrastructure would need to be built. However, whatever land is used should already have water, sewer and power infrastructure available at the property edge to save the county residents the expense of building miles of infrastructure. In addition, it is essential that only the Transferred Rural Area Development Rights can grant that zone change to targeted properties.  In this way all the rural property owners with available development rights can sell those rights and share in the tremendous windfall that rezoning land to data center grants and the Data Center developers would be forced to buy them.

In this way all the development rights in the Rural Area can be used up. All large parcel property owners can share in the wealth generated by developing data centers and leave the citizens of Prince William County to deal with the negative impacts.

No comments:

Post a Comment