Work began this week at the Blackwell Road site, where Warrenton Town Council approved Amazon Web Services’ new data center, though the company has yet to receive land clearing or planning permission. And that’s what armed a group of Warrenton residents who resisted the facility.
Warrenton officials told residents that work Amazon has done so far does not require permits, including cutting down dozens of trees and creating a gravel road next to Country Chevrolet that leads onto the property from the Lee Highway.
However, the local residents are not sure and refer to special conditions that were linked to Amazon’s application to build the data center, as well as to the environmental laws of the federal states.
For example, one of the conditions that the city council approved on February 14 as part of Amazon’s special use permit application reads, “No access shall be permitted from either US 17 or US 29 (Lee Highway).”
“They access 29, but their application said they wouldn’t have access to 29 at all; everything would have to come through Blackwell[Road],” said Chuck Cross of Warrenton, who took photos at the scene.
Dave Gibson, another local resident who has worked as an environmental consultant for years, claims that cutting down trees can cause soil erosion and therefore requires a soil and erosion permit. Under Virginia law, all man-made alterations “including land clearing, grading, excavation, transportation, and backfilling” require approval and inspection, Gibson said in an email.
Eric Gagnon of Warrenton said he had filed a complaint with the Warrenton Police Department about the gravel road leading from the property to US 29 or the Lee Highway.
Another condition attached to Amazon’s special use permit application is titled “Tree Save.” It states: “The applicant must provide a tree protection plan at the time of the site plan that appears to minimize land disturbance and maximize on-site vegetation.”
In an email to several residents, Assistant City Manager Tommy Cureton confirmed that “a tree protection plan is required as part of the site plan.”
Since neither was received nor approved by the city, residents asked how tree protection could be achieved when trees had already been felled. Cureton suggested in his email that some of the removal was done by dead and diseased trees, and wrote that remediation could be achieved by planting new trees.
The tree removal issue first surfaced when Amazon submitted addendums to its permit application on September 9, 2022. Included in the package was a tree survey that identified trees on the 42 acres of the property that would be preserved and trees that would be removed. About 400 trees were marked for removal – some because they were in zones to be cleared, others because they were diseased or rotting. Meanwhile, a landscape plan showed some new plantings, including 62 deciduous trees and 43 evergreen trees.
However, this study did not include approximately 8 acres on the site that were then earmarked for a substation – the assumption was that Dominion Energy would clear and landscape that portion.
Dominion later said it didn’t need to build the substation, and the heavily forested area reverted to Amazon. Amazon promised to change the tree study. The lack of a completed tree survey was cited as one of the shortcomings of the application by the Warrenton City Planning Commission when it voted 3-1-1 to reject the application last December.
At the time, Amazon’s proposal to build a 59-foot-tall, 220,000-square-foot data center at the city’s northern entrance was bitterly rejected by scores of county residents and several non-profit organizations. A noisy crowd of about 400 residents filled the Fauquier High School auditorium on Feb. 14, the night the city council voted 4-3 to approve the project. Nearly 130 residents spoke at the meeting; all but two opposed it.
Many of these local residents are alert to what is happening on the site. When they noticed trees being cut down late last week, they contacted the city government. According to an email from Cureton, a delegation that included zone administrator Heather Jenkins, planning manager Denise Harris, a stormwater inspector and a building inspector visited the site on Monday, March 6.
“Because the city has no land development plan, land disturbance permit, or building permit, we had to get permission from the construction manager to enter the property,” Cureton wrote.
In his email, Cureton said they saw workers cutting down trees with chainsaws, but no large equipment and no bare ground or evidence of ground disturbance. Work is expected to continue through March 31st. The road to Lee Highway was “pre-existing with no evidence of mud tracks on the road,” he added, a point disputed by visits and photos from local residents.
Cureton gave no evidence of legal violations.
Neither Harris nor Jenkins responded to requests for comment as of press time. Amazon also did not respond to a request for comment.
Cross, who has worked in financial enforcement for years, said he was skeptical that the site’s activity was legal. He cited Amazon’s promise not to set foot on the Lee Highway and the idea of proposing a tree protection plan after hundreds of trees were felled.
“If they violate city ordinances and the city doesn’t enforce them, we’re off to a bad start,” he said.
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, the name of the person who reported the gravel road to the police was incorrect. The report was prepared by Eric Gagnon, now Dave Gibson.