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Warrenton lawmakers approve plans for controversial Amazon data center

A sign from residents on Friday opposes Amazon’s plan to build a data center in Warrenton, Va. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
5 min

Warrenton lawmakers on Wednesday approved a proposal by Amazon to build a data center at the eastern gateway to this Fauquier County town, moving forward a contentious project that many residents had cast as an existential fight over the future of their largely rural community.

After a marathon eight-hour meeting that started on Tuesday evening, the town council voted 4-3 to allow the tech giant to construct the facility on a 42-acre lot at the edge of town and help power the company’s growing cloud-computing business. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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Town council members David McGuire, Paul Mooney and Bill Semple voted no, but after a long stream of testimonies against the project — including one from “Godfather” actor Robert Duvall — the other four lawmakers said the $550 million data center was worth bringing to Warrenton.

“We have limited use here, limited land space to do this,” council member Jay Heroux said. “They [Amazon] have rights. They purchased the land, just like if any of us was to come here.”

In addition to warning of noise, lower property values and environmental issues, critics had long cast the project as one that goes beyond the single data center. It will probably require Dominion Energy to add transmission lines to power the computer servers inside Amazon’s facility, which they said could bring even more such facilities to town.

But Heroux noted that the parcel purchased by Amazon, which is located behind a Chevrolet dealership and between two major roads, had specifically been zoned for industrial use so that companies could work with Warrenton officials to determine the best way to use the land.

He estimated that the data center would generate about $900,000 in annual tax revenue, or enough to cover a year of recycling and refuse, with money left over, in this town of about 10,000.

“This is not communist China,” he added. “In this country, we approve and encourage private property ownership … and we rely on the private sector to bring jobs and opportunity to town.”

Nearly 130 people signed up to speak at Tuesday night’s meeting inside a high school auditorium, which was punctured by shouts from the crowd as lawmakers neared a vote at 2:30 a.m. Some in the audience wore red T-shirts that called on town council to “stop the power towers.”

David Norden, a former town council member who sits on the board of Citizens for Fauquier County (CFFC) — one of the conservation groups that had helped rally opposition against the facility — suggested the data center would only open the floodgates for others like it.

“You are facing a mammoth company that has already purchased this property and you feel like you can’t go against them. Well, you can,” he said in public testimony. “Whatever tax revenue you think you’re getting from this, it’s not worth the risk.”

The meeting followed several months of sharp criticism from Fauquier residents over Amazon’s proposal as well as the process that had led to it, including a zoning amendment approved by the council in 2021 that paved the way for data centers in Warrenton. That amendment still required the body to approve a permit application for any data center.

As in neighboring communities in Northern Virginia, a flood of residents — led by groups like Norden’s — raised concerns about living so close to such a facility. Nearly 2,000 people signed a petition from the grass-roots volunteer group Protect Fauquier opposing the data center or a Dominion Energy substation on the Blackwell Road property.

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But tensions in Warrenton also went beyond that. Fauquier residents accused both Amazon and their local government of what they said was a lack of transparency, calling attention to nondisclosure agreements signed by town staff, one-on-one meetings held between executives and town officials, and a noise study submitted as part of the company’s application that was initially incomplete.

Several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting also named former town manager Brandie Schaeffer, who had helped realize the 2021 vote that ultimately paved a way for data centers in Warrenton’s industrial sites. Amazon Web Services hired Schaeffer after she resigned from her government post last summer.

Council members also approved a request during the meeting to let all sitting council members view the more than 3,000 emails that Schaeffer had exchanged with Amazon.

CFFC had sought those emails in a public-records request and then sued the town after that request was denied. The group said in a news release that it intends to appeal its lawsuit, after a Fauquier County Circuit Court judge said he planned to strike the case.

Fights over public records eventually devolved into dueling accusations: Town lawmakers were selling out to Amazon and trying to turn rural Fauquier into Loudoun or Prince William counties, parts of which have been overtaken by suburban sprawl in recent decades, critics said.

Others labeled the data center’s opponents, including groups like CFFC, as anti-development elitists who intimidated the project’s supporters into silence. At times, during the meeting, some of the four council members who voted in favor — Brett Hamby, James Hartman, Heroux and Heather Sutphin — said they had heard from supporters who were too scared to attend.

But Semple, long a vocal critic of the proposal, said the composition of the audience reflected the majority view.

“I didn’t do this to put this on my tombstone. I did this because of you guys,” he said. “I’m sorry this decision is being made over the will of the people.”