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Chantilly data center gets greenlight from planning commission after tense hearing

Developer Penzance is seeking to build a data center off of Route 50 in Chantilly (via DCM/Fairfax County)

Over vocal protests from members of the public, the Fairfax County Planning Commission recommended approval of a plan to build a data center in Chantilly.

Following a five-hour public hearing that started on Sept. 20 and ended well past midnight on Sept. 21, the recommendation passed with six votes in favor, including from Evelyn S. Spain, who represents the Sully District where the data center would be built.

Peter Murphy (Springfield), Mary Cortina (Braddock) and John Ulfelder (Dranesville) abstained. Candice Bennett (at-large) and John Carter (Hunter Mill) did not attend the meeting, and Timothy Sargeant (at-large) recused himself.

Pending approval from the Board of Supervisors, the plan would likely lead to a data center up to 110 feet tall on a 12.1-acre plot of land on the south side of Route 50, built by an affiliate of D.C.-based Penzance.

The developer could opt to build a 150,000-square foot warehouse on the site instead, but attorney Evan Pritchard, representing the developer, said a data center was the more likely outcome.

This recommendation comes after months of discord over the project and amidst a broader debate over data centers in the county. Ultimately, county staff concluded that a data center or warehouse was an acceptable use for the land in question.

“Overall, considering the Comprehensive Plan, industrial designation, the adjacent uses, which are industrial, commercial and open space, and the significant setbacks and buffering around the property, as well as other items discussed in the staff report, staff consider this an appropriate area for a data center or a warehouse and either use compatible with the surrounding area,” said Emma Estes with the zoning and evaluation division of the county’s Department of Planning and Development.

Residents of Chantilly’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood raised concerns about topics including noise, potential diesel spills and the character of the area.

“It is just beyond my comprehension that anyone would consider this enormous building within character and harmonious with the surrounding area, yet that is exactly what the county is trying to convince us of,” Cynthia Shang said on behalf of the community organization Save Pleasant Valley.

The data center would house an estimated 27 diesel-powered backup generators that use about 135,000 gallons of diesel fuel, according to a county staff report, sparking concerns about the potential for an accidental spill.

Pritchard said the diesel-fueling areas were designed and graded to drain away from stormwater areas and the resource protection area, and fuel would collect at an oil-water separator in the event of a spill.

“Needless to say, this is a very regulated area,” Pritchard said. “We’ll be subject to the federal [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations, the Virginia [Department of Environmental Quality] regulations as well as the county’s own regulations on fuel tank storage.”

As the committee voted, some members of the public still in attendance shouted their opposition. Commission Chairman Phil A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) voted in favor of recommending approval, but acknowledged the discontent with the developer.

“I’m a strong proponent of engaging people, not being afraid of people,” he said. “That dynamic here does not cloud for me the fact that I believe the criteria that’s important to me relative to the neighborhood has been addressed.”

Spain said it was “very painful” and “a very difficult situation” as she moved for the commission to recommend approval.

Some commissioners asked if the vote could be deferred, but according to county staff, state law requires a planning commission recommendation within 100 days of a rezoning case’s referral. Without a vote, the plan would’ve progressed to the Board of Supervisors with an automatic approval recommendation.

The proposal will now get a public hearing before Board of Supervisors at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 24.