Speaking Out Against zMod’s Data Centers By Right

Speaking Out Against zMod’s Data Centers By Right

To the Editor:

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled on March 23 that the new Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance (zMOD) was illegal. But rather than allow the public time to digest and comment on the 691-page document, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on it, May 3 at 7:30 p.m., and the Board of Supervisors, May 9 at 4:30 p.m. This rush for reapproval leaves residents little time to prepare their responses and objections, or even to realize that zMOD will allow construction of data centers, by right, close to residential neighborhoods.

Of the nearly 400 emails received during the pandemic regarding zMOD, many complained of the dizzying number of changes to consider, the minimal time for discussions and that it was being rushed through during a pandemic. But the do-over is being rushed, too.

Questionable zMOD issues include: Allowing 12 square feet of signage in residential front yards advertising Home-Based Businesses (HBBs – effectively changing a residential district to a commercial district); eliminating the public hearing process that allows neighbors to weigh in on the building of Accessory Living Units, Accessory Structures, HBBs; and more. 

However, the most problematic is zMOD’s by-right construction of data centers, which the public has never been separately made aware of. Prior to zMOD, data centers were only allowed in the “planned” (P) districts, which are large tracts of land developed for a specialized purpose. It is a gross misinterpretation by the Supervisors to state that data centers were allowed anywhere a telecommunication facility was referenced.

zMOD permits data centers in the C-3, C-4, I-2 through I-6, PRC, PDC, and PTC Districts (more than Loudoun). Check how close these districts are to your home via https://fairfaxcountygis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=e64b68aa834d46b0ad0e6cd4d831f843.

I-3 and I-5 districts are adjacent to, or within several hundred yards of parkland and residential neighborhoods. For example, an enormous 100-foot tall, 402,000-square-foot data center (ref: RZ 2022-SU-00019, SE 2022-SU-00038) is being considered adjacent to the Cub Run Stream Valley Park and neighboring Pleasant Valley community.

In zMOD, the I-3 district’s purpose is “to provide areas for scientific research, development and training, offices, manufacture and assembly of products, and related supply activities. This district is designed to accommodate a broad spectrum of clean industries operating under high performance standards.” A clean industry uses eco-friendly practices to minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources.

Data centers have an enormous energy usage: the DEQ even considered a variance to allow data-center generators to exceed EPA air-pollution levels in Loudoun County because they cannot get enough supply from the electrical grid. Data centers also consume an enormous amount of water. Excessive water and electrical usage and the ability to pollute the air, do not constitute a “clean industry” and therefore should not be permitted by-right in I-3.

zMOD states uses allowed in the I-5 district “must minimize noise, smoke, glare, and other environmental pollutants on the uses within the district and on neighboring areas.” Data centers are noisy, contradicting I-5’s purpose “to minimize the impact of noise.” 

The 24/7 hum from roof-top HVACs is having detrimental effects on many communities. Residents near an 8-story CyrusOne data center in Chicago sued because of the incessant noise; Northern Virginia residents have been protesting the effects of data-center noise; and a Business Insider article states, “Physiological effects of industrial noise pollution are well-documented to include hearing loss, elevated stress hormones like cortisol, hypertension, and insomnia.” 

Article 4, section 6A for data centers states “In all districts except I-4, I-5, and I-6, all equipment necessary for cooling, ventilating, or otherwise operating the facility must be contained within an enclosed building where the use is located. This includes emergency power generators and other emergency power supply equipment,” implying that data centers can have outdoor generators for I-5 districts – again contradicting “to minimize the impact of noise.”

Data centers are largely self-regulating: no federal agency governs the siting and operation of these facilities. It’s up to us to understand the issues and know where NOT to allow data centers that will be detrimental to the surrounding communities.

The Virginia Supreme Court has given us an opportunity to get ZMOD right. We know more about data centers than we did three years ago, so it’s important to remove the by-right construction of data centers from zMOD and handle data centers as a separate issue.

Show the county that you care. Email your concerns to the Planning Commission Plancom@fairfaxcounty.gov by May 1, subject “zMOD - No to by-right data centers,” and to clerktothebos@fairfaxcounty.gov requesting it be submitted to all the supervisors by May 7. Sign up to speak, or attend one of the hearings at the Fairfax County Government Center auditorium, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax.

Cynthia Shang