All Is Not Well (And It Could Get Worse) At The Center Of The U.S. Data Center Universe
Data center developers in Northern Virginia are running into growing opposition from local residents — and insiders warn that developers need to prepare for worsening conditions.
In Fauquier County, dozens of residents opposed to a planned Amazon data center flooded a Warrenton Planning Commission hearing, leading officials to delay a vote on the project indefinitely. In Fairfax, county officials rejected zoning changes that would have allowed a data center to be built in the Alexandria neighborhood of Bren Mar after a campaign by residents against the project.
And in King George County, public pushback forced Birchwood Power Partners to withdraw a rezoning application that would have allowed them to develop data centers on the site of a former power plant.
Outcry over data center developments is becoming an increasingly mainstream subject of political conflict in communities across Northern Virginia, the world’s largest data center market.
Heated debates over proposals like Prince William County’s Digital Gateway — which opens up more than 2,000 acres to data center development — now receive regular coverage in local papers, nightly news broadcasts and even The Washington Post.
As data centers become a higher profile issue, public pushback to new facilities in previously friendly communities is becoming more frequent — and local activists are increasingly finding success in delaying or blocking these projects.
“We've been seeing a lot more opposition pop up as people are just hearing more about data centers,” said Adam Waitkunas, president of Milldam PR and a longtime public relations adviser for the data center industry.
“People are hearing all this noise about 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 does."
It’s no coincidence that growing local opposition to data center developments has coincided with the rapid growth of the industry’s physical footprint, particularly in Northern Virginia. The region’s total data center no totals over 41M SF, with around 300 megawatts of new capacity coming onto the market every few months and over 17M SF of build-out currently under construction, according to figures from JLL and CBRE.
As buildable land and available power have become scarce in traditional data center hubs like Ashburn in Loudoun County, developers have begun pushing into neighboring submarkets. More and more, projects are being 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 boards that are increasingly flashpoints for organized opposition that includes protests, lawsuits and recall efforts.
While activists’ objections to data centers differ between communities, most opposition efforts focus on the negative consequences of introducing large industrial buildings and supporting infrastructure like substations and transmission lines into rural areas or close to residential communities.
Most also focus on environmental concerns, arguing the facilities will cause noise pollution and visual blight that 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.
Still, there is a widespread sentiment across the data center sector that local activists are successfully framing the terms of the debate around their concerns — compiling and distributing information that supports their case within their community and getting their arguments into local op-ed pages.
Even in Northern Virginia, many residents are learning what a data center is in the context of these disputes, which has fostered a sense that the industry has lost control of its own branding in its most important market.
“People have kind of decided that data centers are not as bad as a coal plant, but still kind of in the same category,” said Terry Rennaker, vice president of global development for Equinix’s hyperscale division, speaking at Bisnow’s DICE: Southeast. “We’re coming up against more and more community resistance to our industry, and we're going to have to understand how to work with those communities to get our projects approved.”
Those on both sides of the data center debate also say that resident groups fighting data center projects across Northern Virginia are getting better at organizing as they gain experience, develop best practices and coordinate with each other.
Groups like the Piedmont Environmental Council are providing expertise, information and other resources to activists fighting data centers across the region, activists say. Residents suing Amazon and local officials over the approval of a data center in Culpeper County tell Bisnow they’ve recently begun sharing legal resources with activists in Fauquier County fighting a different Amazon project there.
The prevalence of anti-data center campaigns across Northern Virginia is also lowering the barrier for new groups to pop up, providing information and talking points about data centers for residents who may have little familiarity with the industry, and presenting a model for how to build a successful campaign.
It’s something Alexandria resident Tyler Ray experienced firsthand.
Ray spearheaded 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 became aware of the proposal a few days before county officials were going to vote on it and had no opinion on a data center one way or another.
But a quick Google search brought up stories about opposition to data centers in nearby communities, which he said convinced him he needed to do something.
While Ray didn’t speak directly with 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 gave him the informational resources to make a coherent case to local lawmakers 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 definitely learned from the experiences people had in other communities,” Ray said. “We saw what was happening in other places, and that was really where we learned what data centers are and the concerns that people were raising there and saw that we didn’t want those things potentially happening to us.”
Stories like this are frustrating for industry PR veteran Adam Waitkunas.
He said that individual developers and the industry as a whole are not devoting enough resources to community relations, particularly in important markets like Northern Virginia. According to Waitkunas, developers are accustomed to building in industrial areas where resident pushback isn’t an issue. Failure to adjust to this new reality is why, despite enormous resources, they’re losing political battles to thinly resourced local volunteer groups.
Waitkunas advises developers to have boots on the ground in the communities where they intend to build before any rezoning or other approval efforts begin, learning where flashpoints for opposition might be and making a compelling case about 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 push the project through.
“I’ve been beating this drum for a while — telling companies that it's important to have a community relations arm, and when you're going to do these projects to get on the ground and deal with this before it happens,” he said. “When a developer goes in it needs to be like a political campaign — this process is just like a local initiative being voted on and that's how the data center developers have to approach it.”
On this point, Ray agrees.
Ray said that while he can’t see his community agreeing to the proposed data center under any circumstances, the developer’s failure to engage with community members was part of what drove him to act.
“In our situation, the developer wouldn’t even recognize that they were thinking about putting a data center in or who the owner was — that took a lot of research on our part and connecting the dots,” he said.
“Not approaching the community with an open and honest dialogue, that really is what raised a lot of our concerns. Just knowing that who you’re talking to probably isn’t really being honest with you created an air of suspicion that things were happening behind residents’ backs."
While Waitkunas urges individual developers to approach these projects differently, he said there also needs to be an industrywide effort to improve the messaging around data centers.
There’s a good story to tell about data centers, Waitkunas said — they’re the backbone of our digital world and a unique revenue driver for municipalities that have given hubs like Loudoun County some of the most well-funded school systems in the region.
But while there are multiple industry groups — from Uptime to Infrastructure Masons — that focus on operational issues, there’s no organization focused on branding or pushing a positive narrative around these buildings. With a record number of data centers in the development pipeline throughout the U.S., Waitkunas says this messaging effort is going to be increasingly important well beyond the borders of Northern Virginia.
“Someone needs to take the initiative,” he said. “A group needs to be formed that is kind of a general public educator that does publicity on how data centers affect communities and the general public. It's important to get that message out there.”