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Fairfax County considers size, noise and environmental guidelines for data centers

Wires plugged into a computer server (via Jordan Harrison/Unsplash)

Fairfax County’s efforts to establish more regulations for data centers are heating up.

With the industry continuing to grow in Northern Virginia, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) presented guidelines on issues like noise, water and air quality, energy demand and aesthetics to the Board of Supervisors’ land use policy committee on Tuesday (Oct. 17).

Currently, the county allows data centers by right — meaning they only need administrative approvals instead of going through a public hearing process — in industrial districts, along with medium or high-intensity office districts and some special planned districts.

The zoning code that got re-adopted in May prohibited data centers in residential districts and added size, cooling, ventilating and equipment enclosures requirements.

Deputy Zoning Administrator Carmen Bishop said the county could consider establishing a maximum size that “would be allowed by right.” Larger sizes could be allowed with special exception approval.

“Now, of course, another option could be to require special exception approval for all data centers regardless of size,” Bishop said. “Other locational considerations could include setbacks, screening, additional screening requirements and other performance criteria.”

Data centers require generators, which can be noisy, according to county staff. To mitigate the noise impacts, Bishop said the county could consider requiring noise modeling, expanding existing equipment enclosure requirements and establishing standards for emergency generator usage and testing.

To protect water quality standards, the county could require monitoring before discharging to the wastewater system.

“If the monitoring indicates a need for pretreatment, then that could be required to be provided on-site,” Bishop said.

The DPD also proposed adding safety features for diesel handling and spill containment.

As for aesthetics, county staff suggested adding standards for facade differentiation, defined entrance features and screening.

Katie Hermann, the DPD’s environmental policy branch chief, said there could be added guidelines dictating LEED certification for data centers.

She said the county could also consider a salt management plan for exteriors spaces, maximizing tree preservation, and where applicable, establishing conservation easements or dedications to the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Loudoun County is the leading place in the country for data centers, with more than 100 projects, according to county staff. Fairfax County currently has at least 12 data centers, with five more in the pipeline and a controversial project in Chantilly nearing approval.

Research found that the demand for data centers is expected to double from 2022 to 2030.

Next Thursday (Oct. 26), the DPD will meet with the Fairfax County Planning Commission’s land use process Review Committee. Then, the department will put together a final report to submit to the board by December.

“We envision the board potentially directing staff to prepare proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan and or the zoning ordinance and those amendments would go through their own process, including public hearings before the Planning Commission and the board,” Hermann said.

Photo via Jordan Harrison/Unsplash

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