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Fairfax County greenlights Chantilly data center, leading residents to consider lawsuit

Pleasant Valley neighborhood resident Cynthia Shang speaks to a crowd in front of Fairfax Government Center on Jan. 23, 2024 (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Fairfax County is getting a new warehouse or data center next to the Chantilly Auto Park — though unhappy residents and local stakeholder groups say they may take the issue to court.

After a lengthy public hearing on Tuesday (Jan. 23), the Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 to approve a rezoning of a 12-acre plot off Route 50 for industrial use. Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity was the sole dissenting vote, and Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn was absent.

PDCREF 2 Chantilly LLC, a developer affiliated with the D.C.-based firm Penzance, hasn’t yet settled on a definite plan for the site. Its application to the county included options for a 150,000-square-foot warehouse or a 402,000-square-foot data center, with heights between 75 and 110 feet.

Twenty-three individuals, many of them residents of the Pleasant Valley neighborhood roughly a mile from the site, showed up at the hearing to oppose to the application. But their concerns failed to turn most supervisors against the proposal.

“We’ve heard concerns about noise, visual effects, energy demand, water quality, and the like,” Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith said following the hearing. “But we’ve also heard how thoroughly this applicant has addressed these concerns by submitting a more robust proffer package than any data center applicant has previously provided in this county.”

Concerns about noise and pollution

Before the hearing, Pleasant Valley residents and community groups held a press conference to explain their opposition to the application. The data center’s proposed height and anticipated noise, air and water pollution from its equipment were cited as major concerns.

The coalition, which included the West Fairfax Citizens Association and Sully District Council of Citizens Association, also worried that the warehouse alternative could increase traffic congestion.

“My main concern is the noise,” Pleasant Valley resident Trevor Brierly said. “I don’t want to live in a neighborhood where there’s a constant, low-pitched hum that doesn’t go away. You can’t do anything about it.”

As part of the application, the developer must comply with several conditions, including lowering the facility’s noise levels to meet county standards.

Illustration showing the location of the proposed data center/warehouse in relation to Chantilly’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood (via Fairfax County)

The developer plans to install noise buffers and silencers on equipment and enclose the facility’s 27 diesel-powered generators, aiming to reduce external noise from the HVAC system and generators from the county’s limit of 60 decibels — equivalent to a normal conversation — to 50 decibels, akin to rainfall, per noiseawareness.org.

The developer must also carry out a noise study after the data center’s construction to ensure it complies with the county’s noise regulations.

Still, Brierly says he’s worried the generator and HVAC noise could lead to a loss of sleep and anxiety.

“The applicant has said the noise will not be any louder than a conversation, but who wants to listen to a conversation every minute of the day?” he told FFXnow after the hearing. “My concern is that it will not necessarily be the volume, but the type of noise and its constancy that will still make it very difficult to deal with.”

Speakers also raised concerns that the fuel from the generators could leak into a nearby stream that leads into the Occoquan River.

“They’ve got 27 diesel generators holding nearly 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel… so any kind of leak, spill, or fire is a hazard to our drinking water,” Pleasant Valley resident Cynthia Shang said during the press conference.

Evan Pritchard, an attorney with the D.C.-based firm Cozen O’Connor who represented the developer, assured supervisors that the generators are in an area specifically designed to contain spills. He noted that any fuel spillage would be filtered through a water separator before reaching stormwater collection points.

“There are rigorous federal EPA, [Virginia Department of Environmental Quality] and county regulations we all have to abide by all intended to minimize the chance of a spill,” Pritchard said.

In addition, the developer plans to allocate 67 acres of the 79-acre parcel to the Fairfax County Park Authority, reserve 2% of parking spaces for electric vehicle stations, and achieve LEED Silver certification, per the application.

Stricter standards for data centers

While reviewing the Chantilly proposal, Fairfax County began developing tougher guidelines for future data center developments, addressing noise, water, air quality and energy demand issues that have spurred advocacy for stricter standards across the region.

Citizen and environmental groups successfully pressured Prince William County last year to impose strict decibel limits on data center developers, particularly for sites close to residential areas. In other cases, residents have taken legal action over approved developments near their neighborhoods.

Several Fairfax County supervisors, including Board Chairman Jeff McKay, contended that the Chantilly application includes some of the most rigorous requirements of any data center proposals they’ve seen.

Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith represents Chantilly, where the data center or warehouse would be located (staff photo by James Jarvis)

“The proffers are legally binding,” McKay said during the hearing. “They exceed the zoning ordinance standards. The protections for noise for people related to this property are better than the protections for noise for anybody else living around industrial properties in Fairfax County.”

While the county has numerous data centers, it hasn’t seen the same level of growth as Prince William and Loudoun counties, McKay said before the vote.

“If you include existing data centers, data centers under construction, and data centers that are in the pipeline in Fairfax County, that would be 7,582,512 square feet,” he said. “In Loudoun County, there’s 45,722,483 square feet, and in Prince William County, there’s 35,280,000 square feet.”

If a warehouse is built instead, it’s projected to generate around 700 weekday trips on average. County staff said that’s 18.5% lower than the baseline in the county’s comprehensive plan for the area and 59% less than the traffic generated by adjacent car dealerships.

However, Herrity countered that trips by cars differ significantly from those made by semi-trucks.

He said the building’s height and size and the placement of generators on the west side near residential and protected areas were also significant issues for him.

“I’d be happy to support this if it was a two-story data center, even if some of it were in the [Resource Protection Area],” he said. “I would have taken that as a trade-off, but improperly located generators? I’m not going to be supporting this application.”

Data center opponents consider lawsuit

The county tax administration estimates the site could generate $534,000 annually in real estate, business property, and other taxes, Pritchard said. If a data center is built, the annual tax revenue evaluation increases to about $7 million.

During Tuesday’s press conference, West Fairfax County Citizens Association President Stephen Chulick acknowledged the county’s interest in approving data centers with commercial real estate revenue from offices in decline.

However, he argued the county’s need for more cash flow shouldn’t overshadow citizen concerns.

“I can appreciate the rush to replace tax receipts and loss on depreciating value of office buildings,” he said. “Unfortunately, the rush to approval is affecting our quality of life. Who wishes to be surrounded by data centers. The way we’re headed, we will be surrounded by industrial parks.”

McKay said at the hearing that Fairfax County has only 12 sites capable of accommodating a data center of any size.

“The fact is that there are not a lot of industrial areas in the county,” he said.

Following the vote, Shang told FFXnow she and other speakers felt their concerns were “ignored” by the board. She said many in her community are “exploring” the possibility of filing a lawsuit to halt the expansion of data centers in the county.

“The 23 speakers presented solid facts, including an expert acoustician’s testimony, but Supervisor Smith’s prepared comments congratulating herself and the applicant made it clear that she’d had no intention of listening, especially to the details that matter,” Shang told FFXnow. “With the exception of Supervisor Herrity, the Board’s disregard for the facts demonstrated their utter disregard for the health of the community and the environment that they claim to protect.”

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