PWC Plans to Rewrite Zoning Ordinance for Data Centers

| August 7, 2015 | 0 Comments | News
Supervisor Jeanine Lawson comments on the resolution at the Aug. 4, 2015 Board of County Supervisors meeting at the McCoart Building.

Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson comments on the resolution at the Aug. 4, 2015 Board of County Supervisors meeting at the McCoart Building.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors unanimously passed resolution 10F, Tuesday, that should set the stage for creating a land use policy to govern where data centers can and cannot be built within the county.

The resolution, which was a cooperation between Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R) and Chairman Corey Stewart (R), addressed an issue that may be beyond redress, the Amazon data center. That data center will be located just west of Haymarket. However, the part eight of the resolution may prevent more data centers from being built in the county outside of industrialized zones.

Other parts of the resolution recommend that new high-voltage power lines do not blight the landscape, affecting the values of residential homes and businesses.

Read more about the other parts of the resolution here.

The Amazon data center is problematic because it requires a 100-foot wide, 110-foot high new high-voltage transmission line to supply it with the necessary power. Dominion Power has yet to provide a preferred route though several routes are being considered and the State Corporation Commission would be the final arbiter.

Due to the location of the data center, which is along Route 55, southwest of the Walmart, the power lines may have to traverse residential areas to reach a substation. Otherwise, it would traverse scenic and historic areas in the Rural Crescent. Neither of those options is acceptable to residents and local business owners, who fear the sight of the power lines would decrease their property values and diminish their businesses. Therefore, the great majority of residents are putting their support behind the “hybrid route” which would be partially buried line along I-66; however, it is the clearly the most expensive option.

While most of the opposition to the lines has been placed on the utility company, Virginia’s Dominion Power, the issue began with a Prince William zoning policy that lacked foresight.

Due to zoning policies that were passed in the early 2000s, data centers can be built within various nonresidential areas, such as those zoned for industrial, office or commercial use. However, in some other Northern Virginia counties this is not the case. While some counties are by-right, like Prince William, others limit data centers to industrial zoned planning areas. Others require a special use or conditional use permits, said Chris Price, Director of Planning for Prince William County.

There is also the issue of taxation. One citizen note, during citizens time, Tuesday, that Prince William County collects fewer taxes from data centers than do neighboring jurisdictions. A visit to the Prince William County website indicates that the county does incentive data centers coming into the county with low-taxes.

“Prince William County is unmatched as a data center location. Competitive tax rates, secure sites with large set-backs and reliable power and fiber give companies strategic advantages found nowhere else in the Mid-Atlantic Region,” the site said.

Between, low taxes and the freedom to build nearly anywhere in the county, it is no wonder Prince William is considered data-center friendly and now hosts 22 data centers.

Josh Levi Vice President of Policy with the Northern Virginia Technology Council, requested the supervisors not pass part eight of the resolution, by which the supervisors commit to changing the land use policy as it applies to data center. Levey thought it would send a message to the technology community, intentional or not, that the county was unfriendly to data centers, even though the issue is more about location than the industry.

“It sends a message of uncertainty, new barriers to entry and a significant pivot in this country’s economy,” Levi said.

Levi was the only person to come before the board opposing the resolution. He said that data centers are desirable as they bring in substantial tax dollars totaling into the billions.

However, Del. Bob Marshall (R-13th) noted, the tax dollars would be negated by what could be lost in home values once the power lines are built. Marshall explained that residents only receive money from the power company when they take their land. They do not have to be compensated when the proximity to the power lines decreases the value of their property, and that depreciation would be significant on the biggest investment most people own.

One resident estimated the average homeowner in western Prince William located near the power lines would lose between $31,000 and $36,000 based upon an estimated 10-12 percent loss in home values. The residents said she based her estimates on a study done in Seattle, Washington. According to that study, she said that homeowners located closer to power lines sometimes lose up to 36 percent of their home value. The losses also totaled more when homes are more expensive. (However, looking through articles and studies, we found that most of the time sellers only lose between 1 and 10 percent of their home value due to power lines.)

Because of decreasing home values, hundreds of not thousands of residents are paying attention. However, most residents still think data centers have a place in the county, just not near residential area, nor scenic areas.

Chairman Corey Stewart wanted to make clear that the industry should not view the resolution as anti-business.

“The message, that we do want to get out, is that we want to provide clarity to the data center industry; we do want to provide clarity to Dominion that to the extent that we bring those data centers into the county, and we do want them, that the infrastructure needs to be addressed in our zoning ordinance. This is, in fact, a deliberative process that begins now with all of the stakeholders coming in.”

He explained that while business interests are important to the county, equally, if not more important, are the interests of the citizens.

“This is a community listening to its citizens and trying to balance their interests with the interests of the county and of business,” Stewart said.

Jeanine Lawson said she echoes Stewart’s sentiments. She said she received an unprecedented amount of emails at least from her perspective as a new supervisor.

“Clearly this has garnered a lot of attention, and it has garnered a lot of attention rightfully so because this does affect a lot of Prince William residents, property owners,” Lawson said.

Coles District Supervisor Marty Nohe asked that all stakeholders, including trade organizations, be contacted when such decisions are made.

Pete Candland said that the resolution was a move in the right direction, but it should have never gotten so far that a data center was being built just north of the Town of Haymarket.

“I know that these data centers are absolute power hogs. These things just require a tremendous amount of infrastructure to support,” Candland said. “To protect the citizens of Prince William County, that is our main responsibility as the supervisors of Prince William County, so we need to bring business here but not at the detriment to the people of Prince William.”

Chris Price, Director of Planning for the county, told Bristow Beat that the way his office will initiate the process of changing the zoning ordinances is to take a closer look at what other local jurisdictions are doing in regards to data centers. The Planning Commission, will then look at what is best practice in the industry, even looking beyond Northern Virginia.They will create a Planning Commission recommendation that the Commission will present to the Board of County Supervisors. At that point, public hearings will be held so that the community has a chance to provide its input. Only then can the supervisors vote upon changes.

© 2015, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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