County Updates Noise Ordinance as 'First Step' to Quiet Data Centers

Residents, Supervisors say the ordinance does not go far enough


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Seven members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted to expire a provision in the 1989 county noise ordinance that exempted commercial heating and cooling systems from a 55-decibel nighttime noise maximum in residentially zoned areas. New Gainesville Supervisor, Bob Weir-R abstained.

The amendment is a response to noises emanating from data centers with HVAC systems that are audible from residential areas. The amendment went into effect immediately and is set to sunset in one year on Feb. 28, 2024. After that, the ordinance will be reviewed and revalued to see if changes are necessary. 

With Prince William County on track to become the biggest data center hub in the world, the noise ordinance is one way to force existing centers to operate more quietly and to set a standard for new data centers. 

Most supervisors and residents agreed that the noise ordinance still will not go far enough, but it should nonetheless be adopted as an initial step, to protect neighborhoods from data center noise.

“I am absolutely happy that we are voting on this,” said Coles Supervisor Yesli Vega-R. “I know that this is not going to be the ace in the hole that we’ve been hoping for, but I do believe that this is a good step moving forward and we are moving in the right direction.”

Data centers run their HVAC systems continuously day and night. In some cases, the noise can be heard by residents such as in Great Oaks in the Coles District and Regency in the Brentsville District.

While residents have complained to the police and their supervisors, data centers were technically in compliance, so the county could only request that the data center rectify the situation.

According to the updated ordinance. data centers will now be in violation when after 10 p.m. and before 9 a.m. noise levels exceed 55 decibels. This would hold data centers to the same regulations as people. Generally, people have been in violation of the ordinance for playing music outside, talking loudly, revving engines, running lawnmowers, exploding fireworks, or for their dogs repeatedly barking outside.  Industry always had to adhere to noise regulations as well, but their HVAC systems were exempt.

Supervisors said they fully realize the ordinance does not go far enough but is a “first step,” in addressing the issue. They are forming a working group of different stakeholders, including police, residents, and data center owners and operators to monitor the enforcement of the policy during the first year and examine how centers are complying. After that, the ordinance will be “sunset.” This is not to eliminate the ordinance, but to modify it.

“This is just a first step, which is why we have a sunset clause in it. This was the simplest thing we could do which was just take away the exemption for commercial use at night which was in the ordinance,” Chair Ann Wheeler -D said.

“The quickest easiest usually results in unintended consequences,” said Supervisor Weir who abstained. He said it was a nice effort but not fully developed to the point in which it should be adopted.

He said the county did not investigate the reason the exemption was originally included. Could those companies meet compliance? 

Another possible blind spot was that supervisors were unclear as to what the penalty was for a noise violation prior to discussing the amendment.

At the beginning of their discussion, Mary Robble told supervisors that the civil penalty for a noise violation is $250 on the first incident and $500 for each additional infraction as per the Virginia General Assembly. Both supervisors and residents said multi-billion-dollar industries like Amazon and Google might consider that just the cost of doing business.

But Robble later corrected herself and said that exceeding the noise ordinance in Prince William County is a misdemeanor criminal offense that could result in up to a $1,000 fine and jail time not to exceed 6 months.

Generally, she said, police would first inform a person they are being too loud and only arrest violators if continued to exceed the noise maximum of three times in the same night. But most of those cases stem from people being willfully defiant rather than unable to comply. 

In terms of a data center, supervisors admitted they would not know who the responsible party would be. Could anyone be arrested for these violations? That would be something the working group would need to explore.

During the public hearing, Josh Levi President of the Data Center Coalition of Virginia said his organization supports the new noise ordinance along with the opportunity to serve on an informational board. “We appreciate the opportunity to participate,” he said.

“I’m going to support this because it is a good first step, we absolutely have a lot to work through on the zoning side,” said Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson-R, recognizing residents’ concerns.

Lawson had worked with the Stanley Martin Co. in including proffers in the Devlin Technology Park application. It would place limits on sound maximums and require sound studies to be conducted before and after the buildings were operated with an understanding, they would need to comply with the sound ordinance.

The proffers also included a limit on the frequency of the sound since some frequencies are more irritating and harmful to the health of people and animals.

Residents still opposed the Devlin Center, believing proffers could be easily overturned and essentially unenforceable. No data centers have come to the board with an example of how their fans are quieter than the standard. 

Public Comments

Eleven people spoke during the public hearing on 5B. Residents who spoke at the short public hearing asked that supervisors take several more steps to protect the community. Nonetheless, many advised the supervisors to pass 5B as an initial step in controlling data center noise.

And residents said data center noise would not be a problem if the supervisors did their due diligence and did not approve them in incompatible areas. 

They told supervisors the only responsible thing to do would be to pause approving any new development until real sound studies have been conducted and protections set in place.

“Sadly, it has been one year since we have been forced to live with the audibly irritating and health-impacting continuous noise from the Amazon Web Service at the Tanner Way data center complex,” said Katherine Kulick, Vice President of the HOA Roundtable.

Yet supervisors are continuing to develop data centers near homes, schools, and parks, including several mega data center projects outside the Data Center Overlay District, something residents her in her HOAs do not want. 

And the Prince William Digital Gateway would cluster 90 data buildings near the Manassas Battlefield Park and the over 55 community of Heritage Hunt.

“What people are telling you all, in multiple ways, is there is a problem here. You need to do better,” said Elena Schlossberg, Director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County. “What does all that money do if the people here are miserable if the reputation Prince William has is we are just industrial blight everywhere?”

Schlossberg reminded supervisors that only the HVAC systems are only one problem, but the Virginia Department of Environmental Protection now wants to allow data centers to run their diesel generators during warmer months. That will be very loud (between 95-105 decibels for each machine) and spew toxic gases and particles into the air that would affect the entire region.

Additionally, Dominion Power has now admitted the power grid cannot support even the data centers currently under operation in the county. She argued it is clearly time to pause approving new data center development. 

But supervisors did not discuss generators, which may violate the noise ordinance as well. 

Ken Knar, who is selling his property for the Prince William Data Center, noted the same people who are claiming the overlay district is the right location are also complaining that residents will hear those data centers from their homes and schools so maybe it was not the best location after all.

This is true of some data centers but others have become an extension of the overlay district. Behind Village High Place in Gainesville, supervisors approved converting land planned for commercial to industrial. The land at Devlin is still zoned residential but would now border industrial. 

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data centers, Prince William County, noise ordinance, HVAC, updated, amendment, Board of County Supervisors, vote, first step, HOA Roundtable, Coalition to Protect Prince William County, Chair Ann Wheeler, Ann Wheeler, Yesli Vega, Jeanine Lawson, Bob Weir, Supervisor Bob Weir, Gainesville, Brentsville, Feb. 28, 2023