Matoaca megasite (copy)

A developer has applied to build a solar facility and data center on the "megasite" property in Chesterfield. A previous plan by the Chesterfield County’s EDA to rezone and buy land in the Bermuda District as a site for heavy industrial was withdrawn last year.

The fate of more than 1,600 acres in eastern Chesterfield once slated for thousands of homes and then a controversial industrial megasite will now house a solar farm and data center.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved plans cementing the future of the wooded property at the intersection of Bailey Bridge and Branders Bridge roads last week.

“When you look at this piece of property, you can see that it’s surrounded by a lot of development, and it was really just going to be a matter of time when it was developed,” Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle, the Bermuda district representative, said shortly before the board voted to approve the plan.

It was a quiet end to often pitched arguments about what could and should belong on the undeveloped swath amid residential developments.

Torch Clean Energy, a Colorado-based company, plans to build a solar farm providing up to 150 megawatts of power alongside a data center covering up to 1 million square feet, which will house rows of servers used for a host of digital age functions such as streaming videos, processing credit card payments and storing information.

The power drawn from the solar panels arrayed across hundreds of acres on the property will not directly feed the data center, but would instead go into the electrical grid, which Torch estimates will provide enough power to serve as many as 28,000 homes. The electricity could equal the amount of power used by the data center, Torch has said.

Brennen Keene, a lawyer representing Torch, told supervisors that given the previous controversies surrounding prior development plans, Torch decided early on to “down-zone” the land from an residential and commercial area to an agricultural property with the solar facility and data center.

“This is a very tailored, targeted zoning that provides clarity to adjacent neighbors as to what uses can be there for now and going forward,” Keene said.

Keene told supervisors that it makes sense to pair a data center that uses a lot of power with a solar farm, adding that technology companies are often looking for ways to invest in renewable energy projects.

The solar company was drawn to the site because of its size and the transmission lines running through it, Keene has said. They pressed ahead with plans to build there despite the lightning rod controversies swirling around previous plans to build 5,000 homes and a failed attempt by the county’s Economic Development Authority to buy the land for heavy industrial use. That EDA plan was withdrawn last year.

The latest plan for the solar facility and data center has not generated the type of opposition those previous plans did, although echoes of those earlier controversies were evident at the Wednesday hearing where a half-dozen people spoke, most of them favorably about the solar and data center proposal.

Critics who mobilized against the megasite proposal have said they view the data center and solar farm plan as a better option for neighbors rather than having an industrial operation in the residential area.

Mike Uzel, a member of the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development who fought the megasite plan, said told supervisors Wednesday that the data center plan was more attractive than the previous plans for the homes or the industrial use. Uzel said the latest plan entails much less traffic and delays any decision on whether to put a long discussed east-west freeway through the property until the solar farm is decommissioned, which could happen three decades into the future.

“I’m hopeful that this solar data center proposal will finally give citizens resolution to this long-standing question of what will happen on this property,” Uzel said.

One resident raised concerns about whether birds would be harmed by landing on the panels after mistaking them for a body of water. Sara Born, a Torch project manager, said that’s typically a problem that happens when solar facilities in the desert where birds don’t have water bodies to land in.

“Some place where you have a lot of water, the birds can distinguish pretty easily between solar panels and the water,” Born said.

Torch has estimated that the data center, which would be located on 300 acres on the property, could entail an investment of $1.5 billion to $3 billion depending on which company or companies choose to locate there. The solar farm would take about $100 million to build and would put 800 to 900 acres of panels on the site.

The data center could require 2 million gallons of water or more to run the cooling systems that will chill the massive array of computer equipment generate a lot of heat as they run. The plan calls for up to two water towers on the property.

Keene said Friday that the data center tenant has not been finalized. The proposal still requires additional state approvals, Keene said. He added that the tentative plan is to start building the solar facility in late 2020 or early 2021. A timeline has not yet been set for building the data center, he said.

Phil Lohr, another megasite opponent, said at the Wednesday hearing that the community had been able to work out issues directly with the developer to address residents’ concerns, including screening the facility from neighbors and ensuring the developer pays for water and wastewater improvements on the property.

“If you involve the citizens initially on these big cases or all cases you can resolve a lot of issues before it gets to be a huge roomful of people shouting at you,” Lohr said.

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