Prince William County currently has 38 data center buildings that are operational. With 52 new sites planned, this could mean up to 250 data buildings based upon available square footage. Most people do not know the number of data centers in the county plans, which is problematic.
Gainesville resident John Lyver, PhD, is a 25-year NASA scientist who specialized in calculations regarding nuclear flight safety. He became interested in data centers when he realized the proposed Prince William Digital Gateway would affect his neighborhood, Heritage Hunt in Gainesville.
Lyver zeroed in on what he believes is the biggest threat to the residential neighborhoods of Prince William County- the ‘hum’ of data centers. Soon, he was investigating cumulative sound levels from all proposed data centers in Prince William County and working closely with the HOA Roundtable of Prince William County to present his findings.
Dr. Lyver warns Gainesville, Bristow, Haymarket and Manassas residents that they will hear the data centers. The monotonous hum will be heard from their homes, neighborhoods and schools, for those living within .5 miles of large data center parks, and likely be heard by anyone within two miles of any large campus.
It is not a pleasant sound. It is consistent, monotone and resonates at a pitch and frequency the human ear latches onto. And it never stops! The sound can cause harmful effects such as headaches, trouble sleeping, disruptions and depression.
This year Lyver and the HOA Roundtable of Prince William County, whose Vice Chair is Kathy Kulick, asked the Prince William County Supervisors to take definitive action to protect against the unwanted sound, claiming current proffers do not go far enough.
Definitive action could come in the form of proven and enforceable mitigations to which the county would hold applicants. However, they are doubtful that any method would properly muffle sound since the sound energy is additive from every new noise source.
Preferably, they would like to see supervisors deny applications for data center parks that are at least within one mile of homes and schools. They say that data centers that have already been approved near neighborhoods should be remanded to consider new information and allow for more citizen input.
‘Where else in the world do they build so many data centers near neighborhoods,’ asked Dr. Ally Stoeger, Chair of the Health and Safety Committee for the HOA Roundtable.
Since the county had not done a sound study, Lyver conducted one himself. He took the average dBA or decibel noise level of existing operational data centers, then considered how many are proposed for the area, and where they would be located. He used logarithms to calculate how far the summative sound would carry and how loud it would be. He produced estimates of what noise levels would be at various locations, including schools, considering for elevation and other factors.
He found that most schools would see average decibels would rise from 45-61 decibels to 56-70 decibels. He said that is significant because the sound is multiplied. Sound at Bristow Run Elementary would go from 47.9 to 69.8, meaning sound would multiply by 16,000 percent!
In neighborhoods noise often ranges from 40-60 decibels. However, 70 decibels is the kind of noise one hears standing right next to an air conditioner. "However the noise will be 24/7 and there will be no escaping the noise without adding some type of noise insulation," Lyver said.
Lyver presented his findings to county planners and supervisors. The Roundtable is coordinating with community leaders to educate residents about the situation.
Largest Data Center Hub in the World
“Currently, there are 6.5 million square feet of operating data centers in 38 buildings on 27 parcels of land,” Lyver explained. “There are 49 properties under development, which Prince William County believes may cover 39.2 million square feet.” (That number has since increased.)
The county does not release information on how many buildings each center will house. The planners either do not know that information, or it is proprietary, so Lyver looked at the square footage.
“My calculations show that there may be 147 new data center buildings. Those planned numbers do not include the data centers planned on the Devlin Road parcel - estimated to be up to 15 buildings with 4.5 million square feet- and the Prince William Digital gateway covering 2,132 acres, 27 million square feet of data centers are planned and may be up to 95 buildings.”
Amazon announced this week that the company plans to build another one of its data centers near the Bristow VRE station off Route 28, thus increasing the impacts on Bristow and Manassas.
According to the HOA Roundtable leaders, the vast majority of residents have no idea of the number of data centers coming to their community. They especially have no idea of the number of buildings that could occupy those centers.
Should the Prince William Digital Gateway and other projects be approved Prince William County would house more data than Loudoun, making it the largest data center hub in the world!
The HOA Roundtable members have concerns about the following projects due to their proximity to neighborhoods.
Schools that would be affected include:
Patriot High School and T. Clay Wood Elementary School could be affected if data centers are built on Vint Hill Road where there are high voltage power lines.
But, it is not only the number of data centers but their density that will create noise pollution. Lyver’s data is accumulative.
Dr. Ally Stoeger is concerned about how the noise would affect people's health and wellness.
“I did present this info to both BOCS and Planning Commission. I had presented at least three times to the planning commission about the risks to our area schools,” said Stoeger.
“But it's not just a question of how many that is uncharted territory - it is also the density of the buildings being so close to each other and so close to homes and schools. It will be at least ten times the current density of data centers in the overlay district,” said Stoeger.
See Dr. Lyver's data here.
The noise levels in neighborhoods would fall between 60-72 dBA. which is beyond the maximum noise level allowed in a neighborhood at night.
According to the Prince William County Noise Ordinance, Chapter-14 if you experienced a noise level of 55-60 in a residential neighborhood, you could call the police.
One might be able to call the police on a data center, but muffling their cooling systems is not as easy as turning off the music after 10 p.m. Additionally, HVAC systems are currently exempt from noise ordinances.
Table from Prince William County Ordinance
Mixed Use District
But Lyver said it is the tone, pitch, and frequency of the noise that is the most troubling because it is not easy to tune out. It falls within the range of human speech, so the mind will latch onto it. People say it is annoying and disruptive, and it never stops.
The noise of data centers has recently gained national attention. Chandler, Arizona made news since residents say the noise from the data centers is unbearable in their residential neighborhood. Residents hear it outside and even inside their homes. It keeps them awake at night. TV will not even tune it out.
Now Chandler is trying to reverse course. Their one data center paid $2 million to retrofit its building for noise mitigations, but residents say it is still a problem. And they have more data centers planned for the area.
Residents of the Great Oak community in Manassas have complained of noise from nearby data centers.
Acting County Executive Rebecca Horner and Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson-R said they are working with the data center operators to mitigate the problem, and they claim Amazon is being cooperative. They also explain it is a learning experience because they do not want the same problem to happen in other locations.
Proposed Mitigations & Planning
When data centers were first approved, no one was looking that closely at the noise levels. However, Lyver and others tried to inform decision makers prior to the planning commission meeting on the Devlin Technology Park.
Kulick and Lyver briefed Planning Commissioners Tom Gordy (Brentsville) and Rick Berry (Gainesville). They explained that the noise generated from the sites would be harmful to neighbors and students.
The project was very nearly delayed. Then Gordy took the lead, offering a proffer amendment and proceeding to approve the project.
Here is the proffered amendment:
Prior to the approval of each final site plan for the Property, the Applicant shall provide a Sound Study that is specific to the proposed site layout and building type. This Sound Study shall include recommendations for any necessary mitigation measures and the Applicant shall implement the mitigation measures on the site plan as a condition of final site plan approval. In the event mitigation measures are building related, said measures shall be included in the building plans prior to issuance of a building permit. In addition, heating and cooling systems shall not be exempt from the Noise Ordinance.
With the inclusion of the proffer, other commissioners, sans the Gainesville member, followed Gordy’s lead, approving the project.
Despite the new information, Lyver said nothing has changed. "Prince William County is still not taking an active role in researching and studying how proposed data centers would affect noise levels."
And leadership at the HOA Roundtable remained unimpressed. Kathy Kulick explained it is completely insufficient because a ‘sound study’ is way too vague.
Her contention is that it does not specify what the study would measure, nor who would conduct the study. If the data centers choose their own mitigations, will they be sufficient? Or is this a case of giving the developers whatever they want?
Chair Ann Wheeler has said that there has not been a major outcry against data center development in residential areas. By and large, people see the millions of dollars that data centers bring to the county.
Will they be disruptive to neighborhoods? She explained that many have been approved and neighbors have been fine with it.
But Kulick said they acquiesced based on insufficient information. No one knew how many data centers were planned, nor how loud they would be, and that lack of information benefited the county. It benefited supervisors who wanted to rush the data center parks, to ultimately benefit developers.
However, the more people learn about the data centers, the more concerns they have, she explained. That is why her group is educating residents. She would expect the supervisors to do the same, rather than rush the projects.
“It’s about principles and public interest, not to the developers' benefit," she said. "What about your integrity to the citizens?”
Communities participating with the HOA Roundtable have no other agenda, but to love where they live, said Kulick.
“We’re not an activist organization. We’re citizens. We’re families. We came here and live here because there are attributes we like,” she said. And her members do not want to live next to data centers with “giant cooling centers and blowers,” producing a hum 24/7.
However, Kulick said they are still working on outreach. There are a number of communities along Linton Hall Road that she believes should participate with the Roundtable to learn how adjacent data centers will directly affect them. In a few instances, HOA leadership has not passed on the information to their residents. Oftentimes residents are busy and not so tuned in to what is happening in their neighborhoods. For those reasons, the Roundtable is also utilizing other methods to get the word out to local residents, such as the media.
Ultimately, she said it is just wrong land use, and she would rather have new homes near existing homes than huge clusters of data center buildings. “It’s planning 101. This is the exact reason you don’t do incompatible uses next to each other.”
She and her members are now working not only to protect Devlin but other developments. They hope some may be remanded back to the commissioners for a second review.
In a phone interview, Supervisor Lawson said, “Not every data center creates these noise nuisance."
But Kulick and Lyver disagree with her.
"There's no rocket science on cooling systems," Kulick said, explaining HVAC units whether refrigerated air or evaporative (swamp) coolers are basically the same technology everywhere.
"We use small versions in our homes. Data centers use enormous versions with enormous fans. There are logistical differences from one facility to another, but the technology itself doesn't vary. It's misleading for anyone to assert significant differences exist from one implementation to another. A fully-scaled operational data center with air cooling is noisy- period. Any competent review of the data center industry literature is clear. on that."
There is water cooling, which would make data center buildings less noisy, but that is not typical because they come with their own issues, primarily putting computer systems next to water.
Lvyer visited various data centers. He notes some are not fully operational yet, so perhaps that is where people are getting the idea that they are not so loud.
"Prince William County does not know definitively what power level each data center is operating at if they are operating at all. Their only indication that a data center is ‘operational’ is when the Prince William County issues an occupancy permit," he said.
Lyver said that Prince William County has offered no evidence that disproves his estimates of the cumulative effect of all data centers currently proposed for the area. He applied his expertise, which no one working for the county has.
Lawson said she is working to make sure they never become a nuisance, and absolutely, wants to protect her constituents.
“The Devlin applicant has demonstrated a serious concern and a willingness to address the impact of the community, and I appreciate that, and we will continue to work together. I made it very clear to Stanley Martin that it would have to be. You would have to put some very wide buffers in place to protect existing communities."
Acknowledging tree buffers will not be enough, she said the project is "fluid’" at this point. “We still have some time,” she said, explaining that September 13 is more of a tentative date. “We’re still working through some things.”
She has asked the Prince William Planning Department and the county attorney to investigate how they can hold data centers to noise ordinances so that people would not hear “these pesky, loud operations.”
And the supervisor is advocating for changing antiquated sound ordinances that exempt heating and cooling system. (Data Centers produce even louder noises from their generators but those are tested only about once a month.)
Horner said her staff expects to present their findings on what can be done legally to prevent noise pollution from data centers at the next legislative session.
As for how to mitigate those noises, that would be up to each data center, because it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, the acting county executive explained.
“There are many different types of building materials and there are likely many ways to attenuate sound,” Horner said. " would depend heavily on the technology used in the building, site layout, building orientation, land contours, other structures, etc.”
Horner and Lawson agreed it is not a simple issue with a simple solution, but they do want to be proactive.
“It is good to be aware of potential noise generation and develop mitigation solutions prior to it becoming a problem," Horner said.
Even if the noise issue can be mitigated, it only alleviates one of many concerns residents have about data centers. Other issues include water quality and the question of when the county would see the money rolling. Some estimate it would be as long as 25 years.
Residents also ask why Prince William will not tax at a higher rate. Right now data centers are taxed at a rate of $1.65 per $100 of computer equipment. The county plans to increase that rate to $2 as of 2025. But Loudoun taxes at a rate of $4.20 for every $100. Prince William gave their word to developers to hold their tax rates low, but Kulick asks what about the residents? "Is our land and our quality of life worth less than half of Loudoun's?"
She notes that these are the largest companies that ever existed in the world. They are paying an outrageous amount for the property, yet the supervisors choose not to tax them at a fair rate; meanwhile, our taxes go up. The supervisors added a meal tax. Who do they work for?
The HOA Roundtable primarily wants residents to understand the density of these data centers, plus the number of buildings, and that proximity to homes and schools is of tremendous significance. They would fundamentally change their neighborhoods for perpetuity. Western Prince William County will be completely different if all of the projects go forward, the leadership contends.
“It represents a transformation of the county from a development perspective and a land use philosophy,” Kulick said, and yet can't wait to get these things shoved through the door.”
She said at the very least, the supervisors need to get the information out to the public. “Do they want the world’s largest data center industrial corridor in our county?”
She wants local people to ask themselves if they really want high-density data centers next to their homes as well as their schools and parks.
The public hearing is tentatively planned for September 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the McCoart Administrative Buildings.
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