OPINION: The problem with the data center deal in Wallingford

By Mike Brodinsky

In June, the Wallingford Town Council voted 5-4 to approve an agreement with a developer called Gotspace. This decision opened the door to data centers in specific locations in Wallingford. Data centers are big buildings that house expensive computer equipment, and they'd pay a lot of money to the town in lieu of taxes. 

The Council's decision to allow data centers may prove to be the right decision. But it was approved without much research into how data centers look and sound, or a thorough discussion of the soft spots, warts, flaws, and risks inherent in the deal. Officials were so attracted to the new cash that the money became a blinding light. 

Steve Knight's column that appeared in this paper on 11/28/21 made matters worse. Mr. Knight tried to put a glossy veneer on the deal, but in the process he got some critical points wrong, spun the facts like mad, and put the matter in a false light. That's bad not only because misinformation spread in a newspaper is always bad, but because it lures folks away from corrective measures even if an opportunity arises to make adjustments.

One big problem with the Gotspace  deal is that data centers have a reputation for being noisy. The town (mayor, council, law department) had a duty to eliminate the risk of too much noise, or reveal and define the risks it couldn't eliminate. They failed.

The agreement should have been residents' primary shield against too much noise. Instead it was a cruel hoax. After all, the crucial question always was: How much additional noise should residents in the area have to endure? They were entitled to a clear, clean, crisp answer. And the agreement should have answered that, but it didn't.

A measureable noise limit could have been debated, discussed, and inserted into the deal on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. The town had already retained a sound consultant so it was well-positioned to take on this thorny issue. Instead, the town scrupulously avoided that question, and approved some slick gobbledygook in the contract which boils down to this: No one knows how much noise the data centers will make, but after they are built, we'll tell you what we've accepted. That's nonsense.

The advantage of controlling noise by way of a host agreement is that if a data center produced more noise than the agreement allowed, it should be a breach of the contract, if the contract was tight. That would mean that the data centers would lose their very favorable tax exemption from the date of the breach, and they would have to pay all the back taxes, full freight. That would be a huge sum — enough to be a real deterrent to bad behavior.

To compound the disappointment, the town's administration allowed the public and the council to rely on Gotspace's representations and said-supposed accommodations regarding traffic patterns and building setbacks. At public meetings, Gotspace's representatives appeared to show flexibility and sensitivity. They made changes to their plans. This calmed some fears. But none of those said-supposed modifications ended up in a binding agreement. So when Mr. Knight wrote about requirements for building setbacks and traffic patterns, he was wrong.

The town's strategy is to kick the issue of noise to the Planning and Zoning Commission. It must amend the zoning regulations if data centers are to be allowed, and it will certainly try to wrestle with the noise issue.  But the key question doesn't go away: How much added noise should the neighbors be expected to endure?

It is hard to understand why the town's law department couldn't put a measurable limit on noise in the host agreement, if at the same time we expect the P & Z to establish a limit in its regulations. But even if a measurable limit is put into the zoning regulations, the issue becomes enforcement. 

With millions of dollars at stake, the data centers have an incentive to get away with as much noise as they need to make. The P & Z would struggle to enforce its own regulations. During the court battles that would follow, the data centers might continue to be noisy. And in the end, the only penalty the data center would suffer would be a slap on the wrist — and order to be less noisy.

In order for data centers to settle in Wallingford, therefore, they need favorable action from the P & Z, and one more favorable vote from the Town Council approving a power supply agreement for electricity. But during these critical stages, no one should believe, as Mr. Knight wrote, that the town has been blessed with an incredibly favorable host agreement.

Mike Brodinsky is a former Wallingford town councilor and host of the “Citizen Mike” show on WPAA.

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