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Orange County OKs Wilderness Crossing despite outpouring of opposition

Despite the vocal opposition of dozens of residents on Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has approved the controversial Wilderness Crossing rezoning.

A total of 37 people, all of whom opposed the project, spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing to a packed room, the crowd extending into an overflow area in the lobby. Their concerns largely echoed issues that had been brought up by both citizens and planning commissioners during the initial review phases, including questions about the water supply and concerns over increased traffic.

The rezoning changes the Wilderness Crossing site from primarily agricultural and industrial to mixed-use, allowing for development of more than 2,600 acres on the end of the county near the Spotsylvania border. The project plans, proposed by KEG Associates III, consist of 26 land bays with a wide variety of uses, including up to 5,000 residential units and 732 acres of industrial use.

At the public hearing, the first speaker was Locust Grove resident and school board candidate Gary MacFadden, who cited the results of a community survey he created and distributed on the Wilderness Crossing proposal. According to MacFadden, 98% of approximately 200 survey respondents were in opposition to the rezoning.

Tom Neubig, a retired economist who previously worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, noted what appeared to be an error in the fiscal analysis offered by the developer.

“Did anyone from the Orange County staff inform the board that the developer’s fiscal analysis does not use the correct property tax rate?” Neubig asked. “That analysis uses 94.40 cents per $100 of assessed value. The county’s property tax rate is only 75 cents. The analysis overstates the property tax rate by 26%. It could result in over $100 million dollars of revenue not showing up because of that incorrect fact.”

Previously, the Orange County Planning Commission voted 3-2 on April 6 to recommend approval of the proposal to the board of supervisors. During the planning commission’s review of the Wilderness Crossing application, several commissioners questioned the reliability of the fiscal analysis and pushed for an independent analysis to be conducted by the county; however, the request was subsequently denied by the board of supervisors.

Julie Bolthouse, a certified planner who serves as land use manager for the Piedmont Environmental Council, said on Tuesday that she was shocked by the lack of information in the application and that it was “unquestionably the worst rezoning proposal” she had seen in her 12 years of planning.

“What it appears to actually be is a single developer getting their own private zoning ordinance, which is more permissive and flexible than any other zoning district in the county,” Bolthouse said.

A previous version of the proffer statement restricted the footprint of data centers to 5 million square feet, but that proffer was removed as part of a revision that took place after the planning commission’s vote. In response to a request for the clarification regarding the reason for the removal, county Supervisor Lee Frame said, “It was put in there by a planning commissioner, and there was no particular rationale for it, so we just pulled it out.”

Additionally, several organizations, including the environmental council, the National Park Service and the American Battlefield Trust, noted a lack of communication, with many requests for meetings and additional information still unanswered.

Earlier this month, the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors citing concerns about the project and claiming that they had not been properly notified of either of the public hearings for the proposal. In response, Orange County Administrator Theodore Voorhees provided a list of addresses that he said had been notified, which included the Spotsylvania County Administrator.

Supervisor Jim Crozier said that, while some of the rezoning concerns were legitimate, others were not; he then pivoted to a discussion of a past project during which trucks from Spotsylvania allegedly damaged roads in Orange County.

“The whole reason they came through here is Spotsylvania was doing a project and they didn’t want the traffic going through their county, so they put it through our county and never consulted us,” he said. “Oh, I’m sorry. That shouldn’t make any difference.”

Frame also addressed concerns about contamination from abandoned gold mines. “One of the things I asked very early in this game was to have the entire area tested,” he said. “That’s what they’re doing now.”

Supervisor Jim White talked about the history of the Wilderness area and spoke more positively about the possibilities for the development.

“The area that we’re talking about tonight specifically has been designated as the development area for the county since the very first comprehensive plan was put together in 1976, and there’s been three or four different attempts over the years to study the area, try to see what might make some sense, what would be beneficial to the community, what would work and what wouldn’t work,” he said.

White said that the balance of uses present in the plan — from residential to commercial, with more than 900 acres of open space — was achieved through years of discussion, describing it as “an interesting mix.”

Supervisor Keith Marshall, who had been praised earlier in the night for questioning the developer about the economic impact of the plan, drew criticism for asking how many people in the room “drew their first breath in Orange County,” to which one community member shouted, “What difference does it make?”

“One of the first things we learned growing up in this county was the history we learned when we were young, that there was a huge influx many years ago of people that came into this community, this county, and many referred to it as the ‘War of Northern Aggression,’” he said, referencing an outdated term for the Civil War that was popularized in the 1950s during the Jim Crow era of segregation.

“Now, like then, history started to repeat itself and we see another influx,” he said. “The first time it didn’t work out too great. It probably won’t work out too great this time either. And I’d like to refer to this repeat of history as the ‘War of Northern Virginia Aggression.’”

Chairman Mark Johnson kept his comments brief, noting the history of public meetings that have taken place over the years regarding developments in the area.

“My point is there have been many, many meetings which gave the public a chance for input into this process,” he said. “So nothing’s been secret, nothing’s been hidden.”

At the end of the night, the board voted 4-1 in approval of the rezoning. The dissenting vote came from Marshall, who said he was swayed by concerns both during the meeting and in a follow-up conversation that the proposal did not adequately protect the “economic opportunity zones” that were needed to offset the cost of additional residential units. Under the terms of the plan, the two areas designated as economic opportunity zones will be open to use for residential housing starting in 2030 and 2035, respectively.

“I truly feel that these opportunity settlements are crucial to the county and whether we can balance out the residential growth with economic development. I see it becoming a little more difficult when we’re mixing residential and economic development,” Marshall said.

Planning Commission Vice-Chair Jason Capelle said that the meeting was a missed opportunity for the board to articulate the reasons for their support of the project to their constituents, as well as recent improvements such as an increase from $6 million in cash proffers to more than $20 million.

“The project was approved,” Capelle said. “It moved the needle, and I wish the board had done a better job focusing on the positive parts of the project instead of focusing on petty grievances.”


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