All is not well (and it could get worse) at the center of the US data center universe

All is not well (and it could get worse) at the center of the US data center universe

Data center developers in Northern Virginia are facing growing opposition from local residents — and insiders are warning that developers should prepare for worsening conditions.

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In a single week at the end of November, three separate data center proposals in three different counties in Northern Virginia were rejected, delayed or withdrawn following rejection by local residents.

In Fauquier County, dozens of residents opposed to an Amazon data center project flooded a Warrenton Planning Commission hearing, leading officials to indefinitely delay a vote on the project. In Fairfax, county officials rejected zoning changes that would have allowed construction of a data center in the Alexandria neighborhood of Bren Mar after residents campaigned against the plan.

And in King George County, a public denial forced Birchwood Power Partners to withdraw a rezoning request that would have allowed them to develop data centers on the site of a former power station.

The outcry over data center developments is becoming an increasingly common topic of political contention in communities across Northern Virginia, the world’s largest data center market.

Heated debates over proposals such as the Prince William County Digital Gateway – which opens up more than 2,000 acres for data center development – ​​now receive regular coverage in local newspapers, nightly news shows and even the Washington Post.

As data centers become an increasingly high-profile issue, public rejection of new installations in previously friendly communities is becoming more common – and local activists are increasingly successful in delaying or blocking these projects.

“We’ve seen a lot more opposition arise as people hear more and more about data centers,” said Adam Waitkunas, chairman of Milldam PR and longtime public relations adviser to the data center industry. data.

“People hear all this noise about the environmental impact and that sort of thing, and there’s no organized effort to educate the general public in layman’s terms about data centers or what the data center industry is doing. of data.”

It’s no coincidence that growing local opposition to data center development has coincided with the rapid growth of the industry’s physical footprint, especially in northern Virginia. The region’s total data center is no more than 41 million square feet, with about 300 megawatts of new capacity coming to market every few months and more than 17 million square feet of building currently under construction, according to figures from JLL and CBRE.

As buildable land and available power became scarce in traditional data centers like Ashburn in Loudoun County, developers began to enter nearby submarkets. Increasingly, projects are proposed in residential, rural or semi-rural areas that have little existing industrial development.

This often requires rezoning or rewriting of local land use master plans and decisions in the hands of county councils which are increasingly hotspots for organized opposition that includes protests, lawsuits and efforts reminder.

While activists’ objections to data centers differ from community to community, most opposition efforts focus on the negative consequences of introducing large industrial buildings and supporting infrastructure like sub -stations and transmission lines in rural areas or near residential communities.

Most also focus on environmental concerns, arguing that the facilities will cause noise pollution and visual degradation that will damage nearby aquifers. Proponents of these projects vigorously dispute these claims and point to the disproportionate tax revenue that data centers bring to host communities.

Yet there is a widespread sense in the data center industry that local activists are successful in framing the terms of the debate around their concerns – compiling and distributing information that supports their case within their community and making air their arguments in the local opinion pages.

Even in Northern Virginia, many residents are learning about a data center in the context of these disputes, which has led to the impression that the industry has lost control of its own brand image in its market. most important.

“People have kind of decided that data centers aren’t as bad as a coal plant, but still in the same category,” said Terry Rennaker, vice president of global development for the hyperscale division of Equinix, speaking at Bisnow’s DICE: Southeast. “We are encountering more and more community resistance to our industry, and we are going to have to figure out how to work with these communities to get our projects approved.

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A map showing the boundaries of the 2,139-acre PW digital gateway area, which faced a wave of local resistance before it was approved in November.

Those on both sides of the data center debate also say that resident groups fighting data center projects in Northern Virginia are getting better organized as they gain experience. , develop best practices and coordinate with each other.

Groups like the Piedmont Environmental Council provide expertise, information and other resources to activists fighting data centers across the region, activists say. Locals Suing Amazon, Local Officials Over Culpeper County Data Center Approval Say bisnow they recently began sharing legal resources with activists in Fauquier County who are fighting another Amazon project there.

The prevalence of anti-data center campaigns in Northern Virginia also lowers the barrier to new groups emerging, providing data center information and talking points to residents unfamiliar with the industry and presenting a model on how to build a successful campaign.

It’s something Alexandria resident Tyler Ray has experienced first hand.

Ray led a campaign that successfully blocked a rezoning proposal that would have allowed data centers on the site of a low-rise commercial building near his Bren Mar home. He said he only took knowledge of the proposal only days before county officials voted on it and had no opinion on a data center one way or another.

But a quick Google search turned up stories of opposition to data centers in nearby communities, which he says convinced him he had to do something.

Although Ray didn’t speak directly to any other opposition groups, he said their efforts convinced him he didn’t want a data center in his neighborhood, presented him with a model for organizing and provided him with the information resources necessary to present a coherent case. to local legislators and other residents.

In just five days, he launched a campaign – a campaign website, a signature drive and outreach to local lawmakers – that successfully blocked the project.

“We certainly learned from the experiences people have had in other communities,” Ray said. “We saw what was happening in other places, and that’s really where we learned what data centers are and the concerns that people were raising there and we saw that we didn’t want that these things potentially happen to us.”

Stories like this are frustrating for industry PR veteran Adam Waitkunas.

He said individual developers and the industry as a whole were not devoting enough resources to community relations, especially in large markets like Northern Virginia. According to Waitkunas, developers are used to building in industrial areas where pushback of residents is not an issue. Failure to adapt to this new reality is the reason why, despite enormous resources, they are losing political battles to local volunteer groups with limited resources.

Waitkunas advises developers to have boots on the ground in communities where they intend to build before the start of any rezoning or other approval efforts, to learn where points of opposition might be and make a compelling case for the specific benefits a data center can bring to that community through additional tax revenue. Perhaps more importantly, he said developers need to build relationships with community stakeholders who have credibility with their neighbors and can help move the project forward.

“I’ve been beating this drum for a while – telling companies it’s important to have a community relations arm, and when you’re going to make these plans to get out there and sort this out before it happens “, did he declare. . “When a developer gets into it, it has to be like a political campaign – this process is like a local initiative being voted on and that’s how data center developers need to approach it.”

On this point, Ray agrees.

Ray said that while there was no way he could see his community accepting the proposed data center, the developer’s inability to engage with community members was part of what prompted him to take action.

“In our situation, the developer wouldn’t even acknowledge that they were considering setting up a data center or who owned it – that took a lot of research on our part and connecting the dots,” he said. declared.

“Not approaching the community with an open and honest dialogue is really what raised a lot of our concerns. Just knowing that the person you’re talking to probably isn’t really being honest with you created a feeling of suspicion that things were happening behind the residents’ backs.”

While Waitkunas urges individual developers to approach these projects differently, he said there also needs to be an industry-wide effort to improve messaging around data centers.

There’s a good story to be told about data centers, Waitkunas said — they’re the backbone of our digital world and a unique source of revenue for municipalities that have given centers like Loudoun County some of the best-funded school systems in the region.

But while there are several industry groups — from Uptime to Infrastructure Masons — that focus on operational issues, there’s no organization focused on branding or promoting a positive narrative around these buildings. . With a record number of data centers being developed in the United States, Waitkunas says this messaging effort is going to be increasingly important far beyond the borders of Northern Virginia.

“Somebody has to take the initiative,” he said. “We need to form a group that is a kind of mainstream educator that publicizes how data centers affect communities and the general public. It’s important to get that message out there.

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