Unremitting Data Center Demand Pushes County to Act

Unremitting Data Center Demand Pushes County to Act

Balancing an economy that can’t happen without data centers with homeowners’ rights and quality of life.

Another Northern Virginia data center is constructed.

Another Northern Virginia data center is constructed. Photo by Mercia Hobson.

The relentless march of data center growth in Northern Virginia has reached a reported 70 percent of the total number of data centers on our planet. Data centers have encroached on neighborhoods, such as the data center in Fairfax County along Route 50 in the Sully District, raising resident fears of deflating market value and sales prices of homes. The 110-foot-tall, 402,000-square-foot data center facility by Penzance drew criticism during the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors public hearing on Jan. 23, 2024. The planning commission had already given the project the green light in the fall of 2023. The supervisors approved the plan, despite the size of the structure and intense resident opposition.

In reaction, on May 7, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution for the advertisement of public hearings during which the Planning Commission and the Board would consider a proposed amendment to the Zoning Ordinance, including Chapters 112.1 and 112.2. The approved resolution stated, “Data centers can provide significant economic development opportunities and are important facilities to support the modern digital world.”

As for what data centers are and what they do, they are austere, huge rectangular structures that store computing machines and related hardware equipment. 

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond describes data centers’ interiors and what they make possible saying, “Interiors are packed with rows and rows of computer servers, vast quantities of cables and switches, and the considerable electrical power and HVAC hardware necessary to keep it all working. … In many ways, data centers are like utilities, where the main interest for outsiders often lies in what the utility makes possible for its customers rather than in the functioning of the utility itself. But, as with water and electrical power utilities, a lot of things in the economy simply cannot happen without data centers.”

The demand for more data centers is growing for more than just commercial reasons. Consumer Affairs reported  that in 2023, U.S. homes had an average of 21 gadgets from 13 categories connected to the internet. The number of smart gadgets like Alexa, Echo Show, Wi-Fi video doorbells, robot vacuums, and smart baby monitors that warn anxious parents if their infant stops breathing has grown, feeding data center demand. This reporter has over 70,000 photos uploaded to the cloud and tells Alexa each night, “Play ocean sounds.” Households, startups, enterprises, and organizations innovate with generative AI, which depends on data centers.

Local jurisdictions and their governing bodies, such as the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, depend on data centers for revenue. For the jurisdictions, data centers function as an alternative piggy bank stashed with tax revenue streaming which largely comes from assessments of computer equipment inside warehouses. Because of a Virginia legality commonly called the Dillon Rule, Virginia’s localities lack true home rule and only have the powers expressly granted to them by the Virginia General Assembly.

In 2022, tax revenue in Loudoun County from data centers totaled $663 million. Fairfax, with a fraction of Loudoun’s data centers, collected $20.28 million in data center revenue in 2022. (Source: Freedom of Information Act request by DC News Now, “In Northern Virginia, growing data center revenue is volatile, tax records show.”)

Due to tight state restrictions, Fairfax County, like other local jurisdictions, has limited ability to raise revenue to pay for providing services, including revenue needed for public schools and public safety. 

The Connection  reported on Feb. 6, 2024, that multiple Fairfax County priorities could not be funded, such as baseline funding for IT initiatives; increased investments in affordable housing, environment, and energy; basic need assistance; and for schools, implementation of secondary security audit recommendations, expansion of middle school athletics, and the impact of  federal government lowering the CEP (Community Eligibility Provision) that allows high poverty schools and divisions to offer breakfast and lunch percentages from 40 percent to 25 percent.

As for the current Fairfax County data center zoning ordinance, it allows  among other things, data centers up to 40,000 square feet by right in the C-3 and C-4 office districts and up to 80,000 square feet in the I-2 and I-3 industrial districts. If a developer wishes to consider a larger building in those districts, they can obtain special exception approval or repurpose the existing building(s). 

There are several data center applications pending review by Fairfax County, including the 70-foot-tall Plaza 500 project in the Alexandria area, a by-right land-use application. The proposed location is close to Edsall Road and South Pickett Streets. Residential and planned mixed-use buildings surround the area. Disallowing data centers by-right in the county would require an amendment to the zoning ordinance.

The Planning Commission’s goal is to provide the Board of Supervisors with recommendations on land use policies and plans that will result in orderly, balanced, and equitable county growth. The Commission recommended approval of a more restrictive zoning ordinance on data centers to address issues of compatibility with surrounding uses, noise, and aesthetics at its Thursday, June 6 meeting. 

After considering the staff report by Carmen Bishop, deputy zoning administrator, the commission kept by-right in certain commercial and industrial districts unless they exceeded size, height, or other standards and required any equipment, such as generators, to be at least 500 feet from residences. A football playing field is 300 feet long, with a 30-foot-deep end zone on each end. However,  a data center structure could be within 200 feet of residences. The equipment would face the industrial side, reducing noise.

At the Planning Commission meeting on Thursday, June 6, Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner, the chairman, provided his perspective on a zoning ordinance amendment aimed at enhancing the existing provisions. He acknowledged. “Northern Virginia sees data centers as integral to its future economies.” However, the county needs to address the energy issues associated with data centers.

Niedzielski-Eichner said that it only made sense that regional and local governments advocate for solutions to the energy issue. "The energy required to operate data centers is enormous, and demand is quickly outpacing supply," he said. The solution to this challenge lies not within the county's jurisdiction but rather at the state, regional, and, to the extent that the electric grid spans the nation, national levels. The commissioner advocated for a carbon-free energy mix, including nuclear power, to meet data center demand.