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Stafford supervisors approve Amazon data center project in Falmouth district

- November 20, 2023

The Stafford County Board of Supervisors last week approved a new data center project to be constructed in the county’s Falmouth District.

The board voted 6-to-1 at its meeting on Nov. 14 to amend the proffered conditions on a 50-acre wooded and undeveloped parcel off Old Potomac Church Road to permit Amazon Web Services to construct and operate a data center.

The proposal is for two data center buildings totaling 510,000 square feet. Each building would consist of two levels and reach 62 feet in height.

Supervisors on Oct. 17 adopted a zoning amendment that only permits data centers by-right in the M2, or heavy commercial, zoning district or the “integrated corporate and technology park” overlay district, acting assistant director of planning and zoning Mike Zuraf reminded the board.

The property in question is zoned B2, or urban commercial, but because Amazon Web Services submitted the application in April of this year, it is exempt from the new amendment and does not require a conditional use permit to operate a data center, Zuraf said.

Rock Hill District representative Crystal Vanuch was absent from last week’s meeting and did not vote on the project.

Noise concerns

Supervisor Meg Bohmke, who represents the Falmouth District, voted against the project, citing concerns with the noise associated with data centers.

Her concerns echoed those voiced by six neighbors of the property who spoke during a public hearing on the project.

To the south of the property, residences are located 250, 330 and 400 feet away from the proposed data center buildings, Zuraf said.

Potomac Church apartments are 800 feet away and Abberly apartments are 700 feet away. Stafford Hospital is 1,000 feet away and a daycare center is located across Potomac Church Road from the project.

“Our house sits right at the property line,” said neighbor Tim Sharp during the public hearing. “We are not going to be able to tolerate even the proffered level of noise. It’s going to be broadcast at us from over 60 feet above ground. We’re going to hear it everywhere and it will be constant, 24/7. This project will bring real harm.”

Another neighbor who lives on Potomac Church Road said she has already complained to the county about the low-level noise from the nearby water tower.

“To hear Amazon talk about the noise – they don’t have a clue,” the neighbor said. “It bothers me to think that folks think it is OK to come into a residential area where senior citizens live.”

Data centers require constant cooling and can generate constant low-level noise that is audible from adjacent properties, Zuraf said.

Amazon conducted a sound analysis and estimates that the project would generate noise at a maximum decibel level of 55 at the property line and 50 at the closest residential structure, Zuraf said.

According to a decibel level comparison chart from Yale University, 55 decibels is equal to the low-level hum of a household refrigerator. Normal conversation registers at 60 to 70 decibels and city traffic at 85 decibels.

Current standards permit up to 60 decibels during the day and 50 at night adjacent to residential structures, Zuraf said.

The applicant has agreed to limit the maximum decibel level to 55 at any time of the day or night and has proffered $25,000 for the purchase of sound level meters for the county’s use, said Charlie Payne, a lawyer representing Amazon Web Services.

Bohmke said she would like to see a sound level analysis conducted by a third-party first. She asked Zuraf if staff had validated the analysis.

“No, this (study) was done by somebody for the applicant,” Zuraf responded.

Supervisors cite economic benefits

Bohmke made a motion to defer approval of the project until later this month to allow time for a third-party sound analysis.

But the other supervisors said they support approving the project now, citing the potential for tax revenue.

An economic impact study conducted for the applicant by Mangum Economics estimated the annual revenue from real estate and personal property taxes at $10.5 million at full buildout.

The county’s total tax revenue in 2022 was $265.5 million, Payne said.

Tom Coen said he would rather see the property used for the data center than for the development of more houses.

“(Before this project) this (parcel) was supposed to be homes and retail,” he said. “It seems like we always get the homes, but never the retail. That seems to be something we keep doing and that’s the definition of insanity.”

Tinesha Allen said the county needs more sources of commercial revenue.

“We have to look at how we pay for the growing needs of Stafford County so taxpayers are not looking at a (real estate tax rate of) $1.18 cents five years from now,” she said.

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