Since all their previous pleas asking Fairfax County to reject a proposed mega data center in Chantilly fell on deaf ears, the opponents tried a different tack. Shortly before the supervisors’ Jan. 23 public hearing and vote on this matter, a coalition of community representatives held a press conference in front of the county Government Center.
Realizing that – with an estimated $6 million in tax revenue on the line – the supervisors were likely to approve the facility, opponents tried to make the best of what they believe is a terrible idea. This time, they simply asked the supervisors to make some “commonsense modifications” to make the project more palatable and less intrusive to the neighbors and environment.
Their recommendations included reducing the data center’s height and size, relocating its diesel generators away from the Cub Run Stream – thereby safeguarding the county’s drinking water in case of a spill, and conducting a more accurate noise study. Coalition members represented the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA), Sully District Council of Citizens Associations (SDC), Save Pleasant Valley, and Virginia Run residents. Also supporting them were the Piedmont Environmental Council and Sierra Club.
“Eighty million square feet of the area’s office space is vacant now,” said WFCCA President Stephen Chulick. “The county is using data centers as a magic bullet [to replace this lost revenue]. But this one would be one-fifth the size of Tysons Corner Mall and would adversely affect our quality of life.”
Cynthia Shang, president of Save Pleasant Valley – the neighborhood within a half mile of the data center – noted that Sully District already has 4.3 million square feet of data centers currently under construction. But at 110 feet, this one would be the tallest and require even more power and cooling, resulting in 24/7 noise. It’ll also need electricity from a new substation, plus transmission lines in unrevealed locations.
Land-use attorney Craig Blakely, with the Alliance Law Group, said, “We believe the coalition has the right idea. And in the event the Board doesn’t seriously consider their comments, we stand ready to assist the coalition in considering its legal options.”
Keith Elliott said the supervisors must recognize Pleasant Valley residents don’t want this data center. One of them, Scott Gorvett, said the noise “would be constant and would overcome people.” He also said homebuyers aren’t calling Realtors and saying, “I want to live near a data center.”
Reston’s Tammi Petrine said the 110-foot facility would be equal to an 11-story building. And she asked Board members to pause, instead of “rushing this through today.”
“My main concern is the constant, low-pitched hum that doesn’t go away,” said Pleasant Valley’s Trevor Brierly. “I know data centers are necessary, but do we need them here, in the middle of our neighborhood, ruining our lives?”
Summing up, Shang urged the supervisors to “not turn our beautiful Virginia into an industrial wasteland.” As things stand now, she added, “Virginia is no longer for lovers, it’s for data centers.”
In addition, SDC’s Jay Johnston earlier commented that Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties together contain the largest concentration of data centers in the world – and that’s concerning. “We don’t yet understand the cumulative impacts of energy consumption, water usage, wastewater contamination, diesel-fuel storage and exhaust filtration, and noise impacts on the environment, wildlife and humans,” he explained. So, said Johnston, more review is needed “before we create further harm to ourselves and the environment.”
They and others also spoke at the public hearing. SDC President Jeff Parnes called protection of the Occoquan Watershed and residential communities “of paramount importance. Because of its height, this building will stick out like a sore thumb and is an aberration of the highest magnitude.” He said the generators shouldn’t be on the side closest to the residents and that a smaller size facility would be better.
Elliott said the building’s size is out of character with its surroundings and will hurt nearby homeowners’ home values. And acoustics expert Braxton Boren, of American University, said the low-frequency sound emitted from this data center wouldn’t be absorbed by the air and would travel long distances. He said it would be stressful and annoying, reduce people’s cognitive ability, disrupt their sleep and harm wildlife ecology. He also said decibel level (dBA) isn’t an accurate measure of this type of sound.
Another acoustics expert, David Steele, said that the data center “will generate an unprecedented amount of low-frequency noise [that] would actually have a 70 dBA impact on the residents.” And Nathan Brierly said it would affect both their physical and mental health and “degrade their quality of life.”
“We live close to Cub Run Stream,” said Pleasant Valley’s Wendy Meeusen. “A data center’s noise directly interferes with wildlife communication and alters animals’ behavior. It also harms plant life and could result in less pollen and trees. Vote to go lower or quieter or deny.”
“This is in a watershed-protection area,” said Kate Maisel. “The developer doesn’t want to spend the money to redesign this building and move the generators – and that jeopardizes our drinking water. Supervisors, knowing you could protect it, why wouldn’t you want to?”
Warren Shang said, “Shoehorning this mega data center here is environmentally irresponsible.” He then noted that, on both Supervisor Kathy Smith’s (D-Sully) and Board Chair Jeff McKay’s Websites, both stressed the importance of protecting the environment. “Were all those words just empty promises?” asked Shang.
“This application will hurt the environment and affect the county’s ability to meet its climate goal to be emissions-free by 2030. Sully water- and air-quality issues will affect all of Fairfax County. Vote with integrity, do the right thing for your constituents and the environment, and do not approve this application.”
Noting that this massive building would be larger than two football fields in its length and width, Cynthia Shang said reducing its size would decrease its needed numbers of “noisy HVACs and air-polluting generators.”
“This building would become an undesirable landmark,” said Realtor Kathy O’Neal. “People won’t want to buy homes here. This would be the county’s highest data center and be a detriment to people and the environment. Is this really part of the legacy this board wants to leave?”
Her husband, Fran O’Neal, said this building would “drop a quality-of-life bomb on area residents. Let’s not leave a boatload of negative impacts on the backs of our neighbors, just [for] profit. Are the benefits so compelling that you’re ready to override the risks you’ve heard about?”
“Does anybody really care?” asked Matt Maisel. “This is smoke and mirrors by the applicant, and trees won’t provide a visual barrier from the building in the winter.” And Julie Bolthouse showed a video about the dangers of data centers, which stated there’s “very little regulatory oversight of this industry.”
Clyde Miller said the Mason District Council Board “doesn’t trust this applicant to respect the residents or protect the environment. Critical unknowns and ambiguities remain, and the money is not worth the risks.”
“This data center and its electric substation will bring more pollutants,” said Pleasant Valley’s Aaron Gagnon. “Allow us peace and quiet in our neighborhood so we can raise our children and live our lives.”
The Sierra Club’s Ann Bennett said a large data center consumes as much power as 50,000 homes and its fuel emissions will impact everyone. “Rapid data-center growth in Virginia is driving Dominion’s reliance on fossil-fuel generation and is projected to double the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions,” she said.
“Instead of using diesel generators, this applicant should be required to secure renewable-energy sources of electricity. It would also protect ratepayers from bearing the burden of costly infrastructure investment needed for this [data center].”
Christopher Bell said the data center’s processors will also produce more heat as time goes on. And, he warned, “It’s going to be an eyesore, regardless of what you say.”