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Fairfax County to revise zoning regulations for data centers amid surging usage

CoreSite’s Reston data center campus (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Amid a surge in digital storage demand in Northern Virginia, Fairfax County is drafting stricter zoning regulations to enhance oversight of data center projects.

On Tuesday (March 19), the Board of Supervisors directed staff to update the county’s zoning laws to include new data center development criteria, such as increased residential buffers, size limits, energy efficiency standards and a mandatory noise study in the site plan.

“The increasing demand for data centers and the increased understanding of their potential impacts reveal a need to consider strengthening our current regulations,” Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith said, emphasizing the “urgency” of the new rules sought by the board.

Potential changes include new requirements for data center developments to receive a special exception in zoned areas where they are currently allowed by right, meaning they can be built without county board or planning commission approval or public hearings.

Last year, the board requested research, findings and recommendations from county staff on possible new guidelines for data centers, including ways to mitigate their environmental impact, criteria for locating facilities and the approval process for data centers.

The report presented to the board in January found that, while data centers bring advantages such as high-paying jobs and significant tax revenue, they have also encountered resistance from residents worried about the noise, greenhouse gas emissions, and high energy usage of the facilities.

At a land use policy committee meeting on March 12, the county supervisors signaled that they support staff’s recommendations for amending the zoning ordinance with higher standards.

Northern Virginia remains the world’s leader in data centers with 51 million square feet of space, per a recent JLL report. Fairfax County has roughly a third of the square footage of neighboring Loudoun and Prince William counties, the region’s epicenter of development.

Supervisors noted that there’s been significant community pushback against large projects like the recently approved Digital Gateway in Prince William. At Tuesday’s board meeting, Mason District Supervisor Andres Jimenez said the county needs to make sure “we’re putting data centers where they belong.”

“We have very few [data center projects] on the horizon that we know of, but it’s important that we get the protections right and the guidelines right, and the quickest way to do that is to get these zoning ordinance amendments approved,” Chairman Jeff McKay said.

The county staff recommendations

In terms of land use and site design, staff suggested that developers secure special exception approval from the county before constructing data centers in most commercial and industrial districts.

Staff also recommended that, in industrial districts where data centers are permitted by right, the county could proactively implement height and size limitations, along with minimum distances for equipment, such as generators, from residential zones.

Due to the swift pace of data center development, staff also advise collaborating with utility providers, including NOVEC and Dominion Energy, to evaluate how future development might affect energy demand.

According to a report from regional power-grid supplier PJM, Dominion’s energy load from data centers is projected to double, increasing from under 5,000 Megawatts to over 10,000 Megawatts in the next 15 years. Additionally, NOVEC’s load is expected to triple to over 20,000 Megawatts.

Fairfax County staff have suggested requiring developers to submit a “future energy needs” assessment when applying for a special exception.

Additionally, staff propose adopting new energy efficiency requirements for data centers and requiring developers to pursue LEED Silver certification, install on-site solar panels and invest in off-site renewable energy to mitigate their energy consumption and carbon footprint.

Regarding noise, staff recommended mandating that developers conduct noise studies and install noise mitigation equipment. The county could also eliminate noise ordinance exemptions for a large number of generators.

Department of Planning and Development Director Tracy Strunk told supervisors on March 12 that there will be multiple meetings for the community to provide feedback on the zoning recommendations. Staff will also engage with different stakeholders, such as local land-use committees and developers, for input.

“It’s certainly not meant to to leave anyone out, but on a relatively tight frame timeframe, we think that would be the most efficient,” Strunk said.

If all goes according to plan, the amendments could be presented to the Fairfax County Planning Commission as early as June and then go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval in July.

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