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    Birchwood Power withdraws latest plan for old power plant property


    November 18, 2022 - Cathy Dyson, The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

     

      Nov. 17—For the second time in three months, Birchwood Power Partners has pulled the plug on its request to rezone chunks of King George County farmland into industrial property.

      Both times, Birchwood provided few details about its proposal, which includes amending the Comprehensive Plan, the county's "road map" for growth. The lack of information has prompted criticism from county officials and residents.

      "We simply cannot allow corporations to come in requesting a blank check ... telling you what (they) won't do or listing things (they) might do is insufficient for good decision-making. It's an insult, especially given our uniqueness," said Debbie Fairfax, a King George resident who has spoken out repeatedly about the rezoning with her husband, Todd.

      In the first go-round, Birchwood's lawyer couldn't specify what the partners planned for about 700 acres around the former power plant on State Route 3—or if they would even retain ownership. As a result, the Planning Commission, which advises the Board of Supervisors on zoning matters, voted on Aug. 17 to deny all the rezoning requests.

      The Board of Supervisors still had to make the ultimate decision on the matter, but before it could consider it the following week, Birchwood withdrew the application.

      The same thing happened Monday before the issue even got to the discussion stage. Birchwood had submitted a 126-page revised plan in late October that provided more details, including the proposal of a data center on the property.

      But before the Planning Commission could hold a public hearing on rezoning six parcels, which totaled 755 acres, the power partners again withdrew their application.

      Birchwood's lawyer, Charlie Payne, didn't provide any reasons for the withdrawal. Asked when Birchwood would resubmit the proposal, Payne said: "I'm a big fan of King George County and the opportunities for future industrial investment, but at this juncture my client is not ready to proceed forward with these applications."

      Rumors have been rife about potential uses of the property, where the iconic smokestack of the power plant stood until it was decommissioned last year. Scuttlebutt the first time around suggested Birchwood was considering a solar farm.

      Opponents quoted from the website for PJM, an organization that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in 13 states, including Virginia. It stated Birchwood filed applications last year for a new 35.7 megawatt capacity solar power generation facility.

      That posting has since been removed.

      This time around, a data center emerged as the possible use, but Birchwood didn't make that clear until the 69th page of its report. Much of its initial narrative noted what is allowed in industrial zoning, including light manufacturing; warehouse, storage and distribution; data centers; general office usage; manufacturing; and laboratories and research.

      However, under a section called anticipated tax revenues, the application cited estimates from King George Economic Development which says the project's three uses—data center, manufacturing and warehouse/distribution—would generate $25.4 million annually at buildout.

      The bulk of that, or $19.8 million, would come from real estate and personal property taxes paid by the data center, according to the application. The center also would create 150 direct jobs, the report stated.

      Nick Minor spoke to the revenue that could be generated by data centers during a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 1. He compared the investments and tax revenues of data centers—buildings that house computer systems and associated components—with other types of industry.

      "The thing you have to consider with data centers is that the equipment inside of them is just so valuable," he said, adding that's what results in higher taxes paid.

      The application also stated the project aligns with the county's Comprehensive Plan and economic development strategy by maintaining the rural character and "viewsheds" from public roads, as the development includes building setbacks and buffers of 300 feet from Route 3. It also preserves open space by leaving 45% of the property undeveloped, according to the report.

      An analysis done by King George county staff did not agree, and recommended denying changes to the Comprehensive Plan and requests to rezone agricultural property into industrial.

      Changing the boundaries of settlement areas would effect both the "rural character goals" and the need for expanded infrastructure, according to the county staff report. Areas set aside for residential and industrial development were "intentionally established to preserve the county's rural character and to define and limit appropriate areas for industrial uses and development," according to the staff report.

      The county staff analysis also noted a "lack of clarity and consistency" in Birchwood's application and cited 12 examples. They ranged from inconsistencies about the type of materials used or what proffers would be offered to a general lack of information about where buildings would be sited and what impact their industrial functions would have on neighbors.

      Birchwood paid $64,650 in fees to the county as part of its second application, said Heather Hall, King George's zoning administrator. Because the application was so lengthy, Birchwood and the county agreed to have an independent third party, the Berkley Group, review it and write the staff report.

      Birchwood agreed to reimburse the county for the work, but Hall said King George hadn't received a bill yet from Berkley for the review.

      Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

      ___

      (c)2022 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

      Visit The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) at www.fredericksburg.com/flshome

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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