Wallingford approves pact to build data centers, with some changes

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WALLINGFORD — After six hours of discussion that went into the early morning hours, the Town Council approved a data centers host agreement.

The host agreement is between the town and Gotspace Data Partners. Because the centers are tax exempt by state statute, the town would receive a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes for upwards of $1.5 million per building.

A data center houses network computers for central storage, management and dissemination of information. The Gotspace data centers would house telecommunications infrastructure and operate 24 hours a day.

The host agreement specifies which properties could be developed into data centers and limits the agreement to just those properties.

The town’s land use commissions — Inland Wetlands and Planning and Zoning — would still need to sign off on any development plans.

Gotspace sought four potential data center campuses in Wallingford — 205 acres behind North Farms Road, 138 acres near Northrop Road, 57 acres near Barnes Road and 45 acres at 10 Technology Drive, off Thorpe Avenue.

The maps showing building locations presented so far have been conceptual, attorney and former state senator Len Fasano said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the council voted 7 to 2 to remove from consideration the Barnes Road site, which would have been behind Hilton Garden Inn on Route 68, citing environmental concerns.

The council then voted 5 to 4 to approve the host agreement.

Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni, who votes last on council business, cast a tie-breaking vote, which he said Wednesday was a “difficult decision.”

“No one wants to be responsible for making residents feel disenfranchised,” he said via email. “Clearly, the North Farms and Tankwood Road residents had concerns.”

Cervoni said that the level of detail in the plans, and attempts to appease the neighboring residents, sets the Wallingford plan apart from the data center hosting agreements negotiated with Bozrah and Groton.

“In Wallingford, the administration, with the council, negotiated very important protections that take into consideration the proximity of the proposed sites to residences,” he said, such as setbacks from residences, traffic and noise restrictions.

The proposed sites are in the Industrial Expansion (IX) zone, which currently does not include data centers as a permitted use. The Planning and Zoning Commission would have to change the zoning regulations to allow data centers, which is “not an automatic or guaranteed process,” Cervoni said.

“The types of developments currently allowed in the IX regulations — manufacturing facilities and warehouses, among other noisy uses — can be much more intrusive to residential quality of life,” he said. “If those properties were to be developed into other uses currently allowed in the IX zone, the council would have no opportunity to place any limitations on development or construction...”

Cervoni added that Wallingford gets criticized for its lack of innovation or modern technology in town, which he deemed “unfair.” 

“I've heard people say that the last technology-forward move made by Wallingford was when it started its Electric Division over a century ago,” he said. “At this point, pieces of everyone's lives depend upon data centers. This move allows Wallingford to participate in the ever growing and internationally dependent use of data and its storage.”

Councilor concerns

Three council members — Craig Fishbein, Chris Shortell and Jason Zandri — voted to amend the agreement but voted against accepting the agreement.

Zandri said via email Wednesday that he wanted to eliminate the Barnes Road site as an option “based on all the input.”

“I was pretty sure at the time of the amended vote that there were five votes to pass the host agreement,” he said. “In the event I was correct, I wanted that site out.”

Zandri added that initially, he was in tentative support of the host agreement and the development project, and felt Gotspace “went a long way towards trying to meet the concerns of the immediate neighbors,” including a site plan that showed the closest they would build to the residential properties.

“My hesitation was around not just the changes in the ambient sound levels (decibels),” he said, “but the unknown effects of low frequency sound emissions and vibrations on people over the long term. Without additional information on this, I couldn't, in good conscience, vote something through that might affect people over the long term.”

Shortell said via email Wednesday that the council has spent a “ridiculously short amount of time — about a month” reviewing and discussing the data centers proposal publicly.

“I was supportive of any attempt to reduce the project’s scope, especially since it was apparent it had the votes to pass,” he said. “I am worried about the sound and its impact on that neighborhood.”

Fishbein said Wednesday via email that he supports having data centers in town, “just not on the ginormous scale that was proposed by the original motion.”

“The amendment made the project slightly small, and anything in that direction I see as a positive,” he said.

Fishbein echoed Shortell’s concern about the short period of time the public has had to review the proposal.

The council met a few times to discuss the concept in executive session — closed-door portions of regular meetings not open to the public.

“I finally said that I was not comfortable continuing to discuss this without the public having knowledge, and there being the opportunity to ask questions,” he said. “Residents were calling me, and claiming that a pharmaceutical company was going to purchase the property. I could not tell them that they were mistaken as I could not tell them what we had discussed in executive session.”

That led to an informational discussion during a Town Council meeting a few weeks ago. From there, councilors and residents have raised serious concerns with noise and the environment. 

“From my perspective,” Fishbein said, “one or two of these facilities could be installed, we see how it goes, and then permit expansion from there. Also, this usage is not permitted in that area and I feel that Planning and Zoning should deal with this first, instead of the … prospect of millions of dollars driving the ship,” which, he added, he felt was “inappropriate.”

Councilor Joe Marrone was the only one to vote against both the amendment to the agreement and the agreement itself.

Marrone said via email Thursday that the Barnes Road piece was removed because the council was concerned about the environmental impact.

”I think it's crazy to put that ahead of the neighbors in terms of importance,” he said. “It was zoned light industrial knowing that there was water on the site.”

He said he has “a few grave concerns on the whole project,” and that he believes the project would not have been considered if there were no tax abatements.

“The developer is a startup, so they may do a great job, but have no track record to rely on,” he said. “Instead of fixing what is wrong with our state, we are going to bribe companies to come here, which will not fix the underlying issues, that, for example, pushed (Bristol-Myers Squibb) out of town.”

He also touched on Wallingford’s previous instances of sound issues between residents and commercial activities.

“This will bring an element from outside of town that has near limitless resources,” he said. “Whatever promises were made will be difficult to enforce.”

Marrone added he wanted Gotspace to have some other things in place before a council vote, including an agreement with the town’s Electric Division and changes to the zoning regulations to allow data centers.

Neighborhood friendly?

Gotspace is now considering two data center campus sites in Wallingford. It’s unclear what happened to the Thorpe Avenue site, but it was not included in a recent list of potential development sites.

Significant changes were made to the North Farms campus site, according to a conceptual map.

The seven buildings proposed for the site — located near the Meriden town line — were consolidated to the center of the property, pulling them back from the residential areas along Tankwood and North Farms roads and from the bordering Wallingford Land Trust property.

Main entrances were placed at Sterling Drive and Fairfield Boulevard. Emergency entrances were placed at North Farms Road and the end of Tankwood Road.

Five of the buildings would be the data centers, supported by two power substations. The total building footprint would be 909,550 square feet with 1.8 million square feet of total building area.

The site would store 192 megawatts in total IT data, with a 270 megawatts total power requirement.

Several neighbors spoke against the plans for the North Farms campus, citing concerns that the data centers would negatively impact the rural character of their neighborhood and quality of life.

Jessica Polansky, 1039 North Farms Road, said that the centers “are not, in any way shape or form, neighborhood-friendly.”

“There is not a person who has documented their result of living around these units that has anything positive to say,” she said. “They say it’s a living hell … (Gotspace owner Thomas Quinn) said in a meeting, these companies like their privacy. We like our privacy, too.”

Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Craig Fishbein and Joe Marrone received after the print edition deadline.

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores

How they voted

    Motion: Remove Barnes Road site
  • Fishbein: Yes
  • Laffin: Yes
  • Marrone: No
  • Morgenstein: Yes
  • Shortell: Yes
  • Tatta: No
  • Testa: Yes
  • Zandri: Yes
  • Cervoni: Yes
    Motion: Accept host agreement as amended
  • Fishbein: No
  • Laffin: Yes
  • Marrone: No
  • Morgenstein: Yes
  • Shortell: No
  • Tatta: Yes
  • Testa: Yes
  • Zandri: No
  • Cervoni: Yes
View the North Farms data center concept plan
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