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Planning Commission forwards data-center proposal to supervisors

Sticture rules on placement of facilities could be approved in July

Fairfax County Planning Commission members unanimously recommended June 6 that county supervisors approve a zoning-ordinance amendment with stricter rules on where data centers may be located, how large they may be and how their mechanical equipment should be shielded from neighbors.

The measure now moves to Board of Supervisors’ consideration, slated for July.

At a June 5 public hearing, Planning Commission members fielded comments from 50 people, whose views ranged from supporting data centers as economic opportunities to opposing them for their environmental impacts and energy usage. Commission members voted on their recommendations the following day.

“In my time on the commission, I cannot remember a public hearing that offered such a variety of valuable personal and professional perspectives,” said Chairman Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner said at the June 6 meeting.

County code currently allows data centers by-right in a variety of zoning categories under a plethora of specific conditions. In some cases, “special-exception” approvals by the government are required.

The commissioners approved recommendations June 6 that would:

• Apply equipment-screening requirements for data centers to all districts, enclosing the mechanical gear if possible or surrounding it with a screening wall if the Land Development Services director determines an enclosure is not feasible. These rules would not apply to solar panels.

• Limit data centers in the I-4 district to 80,000 square feet.

• Remove the option for larger data centers in the C-3, C-4 and I-4 zones if done by repurposing a building, but allow size increases via special exception.

• Disallow data centers in PRC zones and require special exceptions for them in PTC and PDC areas.

– Require data-center applicants seeking rezonings or special exceptions to submit noise studies. Such studies also would be required before site-plan approval and issuance of certificates of occupancy.

– Require data centers to be set back at least 200 feet from residential uses or lot lines. A minimum 500-foot setback would be required for the facilities’ mechanical equipment and generators, unless they were separated from the residential lot line by the principal data-center building. Reduced setbacks could be obtained by special exception.

• Double the distance from which data centers could be located by-right near a Metrorail station to 1 mile.

“We’re really trying to create activity centers and think about our Metro stations in terms of multi-modal and not just pedestrian activity,” said commission member Jeremy Hancock (Providence District), who noted data centers employ relatively few people.

Previously approved data centers could be built under the old rules, but others in the development process would have to abide by the new regulations.

“The zoning ordinance and this amendment are intentional in directing data centers to the most appropriate zoning districts in the county,” said Commission member Mary Cortina (Braddock District).

The commission lacked authority to address data centers’ prodigious energy consumption, Ziedzielski-Eichner said.

“Clearly, the amount of energy required to operate data centers is enormous, and demand is quickly outpacing supply,” he said. “The solution to this challenge is not within the purview of the county, but is public- and private-sector challenge at the state, regional and – to the extent that the electric grid spans the nation – national levels.”

The Board of Supervisors will take up the proposed policy changes at a July 16 public hearing, and if approved, the new policies would take effect the day following adoption.