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January 16, 2018

Town council considers zoning for data centers

Photo/Google Earth
Warrenton council members wonder about the benefits of data centers — large, concrete structures, such as these in Loudoun County, which has more than 75.
Warrenton has three areas with industrial zoning, shown in purple.
One of the benefits would be we do have some industrial sites that are vacant and that could potentially put that back into active use. But, it’s not a 100-percent economic winner for the town.
— Town Manager Brannon Godfrey
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Staff Journalist
Warrenton council members remain uncertain about whether to change the town zoning ordinance to permit data centers.

While somewhat open to the concept, council members in a recent work session raised several questions about allowing construction of data centers on property zoned for industrial use. Water use, building size and economic benefits ranked high among their concerns.

“I think it would be kind of a tradeoff to see what else we could entice to come on the property or might have more employment,” Sunny Reynolds (At-large) said.

“If data centers don’t provide a lot to the community . . . . we should look at other types of industry with high tax benefits, employment,” Kevin Carter (Ward 5) said. “Overall, tweaking the ordinance to not be over regulating would be my preference.”

Town Economic Development Manager Tom Wisemiller said Warrenton could wait for other industries that create more jobs or take advantage of a “bird in the hand” situation with existing interest.

“We have a couple active prospects with data centers,” Mr. Wisemiller said.

Warrenton has three areas with industrial zoning, all along the Eastern Bypass and the Route 17 Spur.

“One of the benefits would be we do have some industrial sites that are vacant and that could potentially put that back into active use,” Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said. “But, it’s not a 100-percent economic winner for the town.”

Neighboring counties have dozens of data centers.

About 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic flows through Loudoun County, with more than 75 data centers.

Fauquier County has two data centers, one at the federal government’s Warrenton Training Center, the other OVH’s operation at Vint Hill.

The county board of supervisors last month updated its zoning ordinance to allow data centers in business park districts when using recycled water for cooling and underground power lines.

“It is a good economic opportunity for us, as it is around us,” Warrenton’s Planning Director Brandie Schaeffer said.

However, “it’s a changing industry. It’s something we don’t fully understand unless we are fully involved in it,” Ms. Schaeffer said.

Mr. Godfrey also explained some possible disadvantages for the town.

“These data centers are typically major investments in capital and a building. There are some taxable benefits to the town, but it’s not for real estate,” Mr. Godfrey said of the town’s real estate tax rate of just 5 cents per $100 assessed value. “They are also not major employers.”

“We don’t see it as a huge tax generator,” Ms. Schaeffer said.

Data centers also use lots of water for cooling, she said.

“One of the things technology does is attract other technology,” Sean Polster (At-large) said. “If we are looking to retain our high school graduates . . . . this is something else we can look to for future economic development.”

Council members will continue to discuss a possible zoning text amendment next month.

Town Council work session 1/5/18 by Fauquier Now on Scribd

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