OPINION: Prince William Should Increase Buffer Requirements Where Industrial Areas Meet Residential

100 feet buffers between data centers and homes, schools are insufficient


Here in Prince William County data centers are springing up in rapid-fire succession. The majority of supervisors are approving new projects and rezoning as fast as they can in a push to make Prince William the largest data center hub in the country.

In the supervisors’ haste to offer up our rural and suburban areas to the ‘data gods,’ we see data centers being planted- not only in established industrial areas- but also next to residential neighborhoods, schools and community spaces. This is the very definition of “incompatible development.”

The county’s planning documents (County code section 800 – Buffer Areas, Landscaping, and Tree Cover Requirements) address how to manage the inevitable problems that arise when different land uses touch, and how a proper buffer can help to “minimize [the] conflicts and adverse effects of essentially incompatible development.” 

In its guiding documents, the county acknowledges this type of planning is poor practice and will inevitably cause issues. To reduce the impact of such bad development the county maintains a table of recommended buffer zones. The punchline of this bad joke is when planning light-industrial such as data centers next to residential neighborhoods, the county only requires 50 feet of tree buffers.  (County codes section 800 Table 8-1)

To paper over this absurdity data center developers are offering up 100 feet of buffer to ameliorate the BOCS and community. 

But citizens are quickly finding out that even 100 feet is woefully inadequate. 

How big is 100 feet comparably? In baseball, the run to first base is 90 feet. If you can throw a ball to first base, you can hit the side of a data center building from your property line. Two large school buses* waiting to pick up students in front of a school (the school that is about to be next to industrial zoning) are about 100 feet. 

You don’t have to be a civil engineer or county planner (some of whom have resigned) to know inserting industrial zoning directly adjacent to residential areas and schools is the very definition of incompatible development, and county code agrees.

It also doesn’t take a genius to see that 100 feet buffers are absurdly inadequate to protect our neighbors and communities from noise, disruption, depressed property value, and other adverse effects alluded to in our county’s guiding documents.

Yet our board appears completely blind to the problems they are creating by approving incompatible development and/or is willfully ignorant of the clear need for updated buffer guidance. 

If the Supervisors are dead set upon offering every bit of land to big-data development, then we need immediate updates to the buffer guidance table and minimums required by the county of developers.

At a bare minimum, we need six to ten times the current requirement. The citizens of the Great Oaks neighborhood in Manassas have more than 600 feet between their neighborhood and the new Amazon data center, and the problems that they have been dealing with in their community are well documented (noisy HVAC systems that some residents can hear from their homes.)

What’s the solution? We need immediate action from our board of county supervisors and our planning commission to update our guiding documents and county code to protect our neighborhoods, schools, and communities – ironically – from the board itself.

*School buses range from 20-45 feet, and large school buses are 40-45 feet. 

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