With Amended CHR 3-2020, the Kent County Commissioners, for a second time, lost an opportunity to “get it right” by allowing unrestricted Data Processing Centers in the County. An emerging and controversial building type, large centers have egregiously impacted communities nationwide and smaller centers are not without risks and challenges. Getting it right would have meant welcoming data centers only after the Land Use Ordinance is revised, assuring safeguards to protect the welfare of the public and environment. Will we be the next community negatively impacted?
The computing “cloud” is not in the sky; in actuality it exists in Data Processing Centers. These are resource-hungry warehouses holding computing, networking and artificial intelligence equipment that operates 24/7, year round. They range in sizes from Tier I up to the behemoth Tier V which can cover up to 50 acres under roof. Their greatest operational challenge is protecting vast amounts of equipment – keeping it safe from overheating, power loss and unauthorized entry. There is much more.
As an architect and planner responsible for the planning and design of varied large and complex projects, I drew upon my experience and research to determine what it could mean to have Data Centers in Kent County. I also looked at what other communities have experienced. The information is easily accessible online and I urge everyone to do the research.
Alarmingly, I determined that Data Centers, regardless of size, are “special needs buildings” with serious environmental and community implications. They require staggering amounts of water and electricity for cooling and produce excessive noise, sometimes heard for miles. Huge diesel generators are needed to provide backup power, increasing noise and reducing air quality. Centers generate vast amounts of waste due to constant updating and emit unknown levels of EMF’s which are harmful to humans. Greenhouse gas emissions are also staggering.
It was no surprise to find serious community impacts where these centers have been located. Electric and water use was unanticipated and overwhelming, draining local water sources. Neighbors were plagued by noise from cooling equipment and generators which rattled windows, real estate values near the facilities plummeted preventing owners from selling to find quiet.
Data Centers are not job producers with most employing around 30 people. The high-level tech positions are filled outside of the community leaving only a handful of low-level jobs for locals and they won’t be built by local contractors. Contractors specializing in Data Center building are hired using their own forces and subcontractors to economize on time and money.
I do not oppose Data Centers and encourage allowing appropriate tax producing ratables in Kent County. However, I do oppose approving a Bill which does not responsibly restrict the tiers and lacks specific safeguards to protect the community and the environment. I also object to the lack of public discussion by the Commissioners which would have demonstrated an understanding of what a Data Processing Center facility entails and their negative impacts. Nor was there discussion about future expansions which will be driven by exponential industry growth.
Without guidelines, how can the planning staff effectively evaluate an application? Why weren’t safeguards first placed in the Land Use Ordinance? How was this fundamental duty overlooked? Who was asleep at the steering wheel at this important crossroad in Kent County’s planning history? Answers should be provided.
Dismayed, I submitted safeguard suggestions to the Commissioners, including limiting centers to only Tier I and II, with Tier I in the Commercial District and no centers in the Agricultural and Residential Districts. Further suggested were allowable square foot areas in synch with adjacent neighborhoods, throttling the operation for electric and water usage, noise levels, cooling and backup power systems and requiring hazmat waste disposal and exterior security plans.
I also suggested “green” building design features to reduce resources, greenhouse gases and noise levels, along with design charrettes. These are open information sharing sessions with the community as stakeholders in the planning process with developers. Green design and charrettes should be a mandatory requirement for approval. It is that important.
These suggestions would assure the successful integration of Data Centers in the County as “good neighbors”. At least the Commissioners were correct to restrict centers from the Agricultural District. It is imperative to keep it that way.
The Bill prioritizes tax revenue over public welfare. It allows a developer to pursue approval for a center of any tier and to do so without targeted restrictions. The door is open to savvy tech developers to capitalize on their investment at our expense.
Can we assure Kent County’s future and correct this debacle? The answer is “yes” with a moratorium on accepting applications for Data Processing Centers until the Land Use Ordinance has been appropriately revised with public input, thoughtful leadership, responsible planning and reflection of the Comprehensive Plan.
Thomas Kocubinski is the principal architect at Kocubinski Architects.