A few months ago, residents of Great Oak, a 30-year-old enclave of about 300 single family homes in Manassas, started noticing a constant mechanical buzzing whenever they worked in their yards or spent time outdoors. Earlier this week, they held a protest outside the source of that noise – a nearby Amazon Web Services data center campus – to warn fellow residents that the nuisance could soon be a problem heard in neighborhoods across Prince William County.
“Great Oak is the first Prince William County community with an active data center impacting our people,” said Dale Browne, a retired engineer and the president of the Great Oak Homeowners’ Association. “We are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ as the county is pushing forward to build up to 130 more of these [data center] facilities. The madness needs to stop.”
Browne was referring to an estimate of the number of data center facilities in the works around the county in the wake of numerous votes by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors over the past few years to approve rezonings accommodating data centers.
The county currently has 38 operating data centers and 13 more data center campuses – with an as-yet-undisclosed number of buildings – under construction.
Supervisors have largely welcomed the data center development as a way to boost the county’s commercial tax revenues. Although Prince William’s property tax rate on data center equipment, at $1.65 per $100 in assessed value, is far below the $4.20 charged by Loudoun County, tax revenue collected from data centers in the county rose to nearly $80 million in 2021, an increase of more than 1,000% over the past decade, according to county records.
Opponents of the county’s rapid data center growth contend the county should put the brakes on further approvals because it already has 50 million square feet of data center space operating or under development, an amount nearly double that of Loudoun County, the so-called data center capital of the world. County officials, however, have not confirmed that estimate.
Browne was joined at the Monday, Aug. 29 rally by about 50 other protesters, a group that included not only his immediate neighbors but also residents from Warrenton, Haymarket, Gainesville and Bristow. They carried signs reading: “Your cloud is too loud,” “Data centers are a racket,” and the “BOCS noise laws are tone deaf.”
The crowd included residents who live near the proposed “Devlin Technology Park,” a 270-acre swath near Linton Hall and Devlin roads in Bristow where a collective 9 million square feet of data center development is proposed and in the works on about 500 acres south of Gainesville High School.
Part of the area, the 200-acre “Hunter property,” has already been rezoned for data centers. Developers recently submitted site plans for 11 separate data center buildings up to 75 feet tall on land that borders two existing neighborhoods: Silver Leaf Estates and Amberleigh Station.
Another seven to 11 data center buildings are proposed for an adjacent 270 acres, known as the “Devlin Technology Park.” The Prince William County Planning Commission advanced the development in July, but it has yet to go to the board of supervisors. If approved, the Devlin Technology Park and the adjacent Hunter property would be one of the largest data center corridors in the county.
Also attending the protest were residents of Heritage Hunt who oppose the even larger “Prince William Digital Gateway,” which proposes replanning 2,133 acres adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park for another 27.6 million square feet of data centers.
The Prince William Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the PW Digital Gateway on Wednesday, Sept. 14. If approved, the development would be about 26 times the size of the AWS data center campus next to Great Oak, noted Bill Wright, a resident of Heritage Hunt and a leader in the fight against the PW Digital Gateway.
The AWS campus at the center of the noise controversy at Great Oak has four data center buildings, but four more are planned, residents say.
Browne kicked off the rally recounting how the AWS data centers have so far affected his Great Oak neighbors. Blasting to build the data centers damaged homes and cracked foundations, he said. Since then, the constant noise has disrupted residents’ sleep, increased their stress and anxiety and exacerbated one resident’s migraine headaches and another’s autoimmune disorder.
“One migraine sufferer replaced every window in his home and was forced to move the nursery for their newborn to the basement to protect their infant,” he added. “The father can no longer comfortably work from home. This requires mom to assume all daytime childcare duties which they had planned to share.”
Great Oak residents are suffering those ill effects, even though the closest homes are about 600 feet from the AWS data center campus. According to the rezoning application the county supervisors approved for the Hunter property, a buffer of only 100 feet is required between the planned data centers and homes in Silver Leaf Estates.
Telma Zambrana, a 27-year resident of Silver Leaf Estates, said she came to the protest because of the 11 new data centers planned around her neighborhood, which she only found out about last week. Zambrana said she’s heard of other areas in Prince William that have been negatively affected by data centers and is “anxious” about her subdivision being surrounded by them.
“I can’t find any [other] development that’s being encircled with data centers around them that are 80 feet high,” Zambrana said of the situation facing Silver Leaf Estates. “I’m just really concerned that health-wise, I can’t deal with it.”
Wright and other speakers blamed the county for having too lax rules for data center development and being too “developer friendly.”
“Why am I demonstrating in Manassas? And why are my friends from Fauquier County standing beside me? Because the noisy, power-sucking eyesore behind me represents our collective futures,” Wright said of the AWS data center. “And we can’t live peacefully with this. And we’ve told that to the elected officials who are supposed to represent us. And we want them to hear us, if it’s possible, over all this racket.”
Wright noted that the AWS data center campus was built within the county’s data center overlay district, where data centers are allowed by right. Wright and other activists have urged the supervisors to keep new data centers within the county’s roughly 9,500-acre data center overlay district and not approve them in areas adjacent to homes and schools.
The problem, they say, is that parts of the overlay district are too close to homes and schools and require greater efforts on the county’s part to mitigate impacts. The county’s noise ordinance, for example, has come under fire from Great Oak residents and others because it exempts noise from data center air-conditioning units from nighttime noise limits.
Browne and his neighbors contend the noise from the AWS data centers exceeds even the county’s daytime limit of 60 decibels in residential areas. AWS, however, denies this, saying a “third-party noise study” found the average noise emitted from the data centers fell below the county’s daytime limit.
In a statement, an AWS spokeswoman said the company is addressing the noise concerns by installing “sound reducing acoustical shrouds” at the data center. Work began last Friday, Aug. 27 and will be completed “in the coming weeks,” the statement said.
“This is just one of several sound reduction measures our team is evaluating,” the statement added.
Browne and Wright said they are skeptical Amazon’s shrouds will work. At the rally, Browne urged his Great Oak residents to download a decibel reader on their smartphones and report the data center buzz to police if it exceeds the daytime limit of 60 decibels between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.
“This will help build our complaint history and help us press for change,” Browne added.
Kathy Kulick, a leader of a newly formed “HOA Roundable,” a coalition of 50 homeowner and civic associations across Prince William and Loudoun counties that are opposed to the PW Digital Gateway and unchecked data center development, urged the wider community to join their fight.
“We did not come here to … live next to an industrial zone, let alone the world’s largest data center industrial zone,” Kulick said.
“[T]he overriding quality we all want in a home are the simple, humble things so many take for granted: lawful quiet enjoyment of typical residential life, to be able to sleep through the night, concentrate on homework, enjoy family and friends, grill a burger on the deck, toss a ball around with our children or tend to our garden without the sound of a virtual jet engine keeping us company or keeping us up all night.”