Groton — The town is implementing a one-year ban on applications to the Planning and Zoning Commission for large-scale data centers, so it can determine how to regulate them.
The commission has discussed the need to create zoning regulations specific to data centers after the Town Council recently considered but ultimately rejected, due to concerns that included the noise impact of data centers, a municipal host fee agreement with data center developer NE Edge LLC. Last year, the council also approved an agreement with another developer, Gotspace, for a potential data center, but Gotspace has not as of yet submitted a specific application to the commission.
The purpose of the zoning text amendment, approved last week by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and which goes into effect July 15, “is to provide adequate time to develop and adopt zoning regulations to address data centers” over 5,000 square feet in size. The commission cannot accept any applications for the data centers while the moratorium is in effect.
The commission also said data centers are no longer defined as telecommunications facilities under the town’s zoning regulations. The commission now defines a data center as a “facility that is developed, acquired, constructed, rehabilitated, renovated, repaired or operated to house a group of networked computer servers in one physical location or multiple contiguous locations to centralize the storage, management, processing and dissemination of data and information pertaining to a particular business or classification or body of knowledge.”
The town’s Assistant Director of Planning and Development Services Deborah Jones explained at last week’s public hearing that in March 2021, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a law to offer tax incentives to certain data center developments, and owners and operators of qualified data centers have to enter into a host municipality fee agreement before beginning a project. Groton has an agreement with Gotspace Data Partners for land on Route 117 north of Interstate 95.
She said as part of the negotiations, Groton’s zoning official was asked to weigh in on what data centers are considered and he determined they were considered telecommunications facilities and conditionally allowed in industrial, mixed-use zones.
The Planning and Zoning Commission applied to institute a temporary moratorium on data centers and revise the definition of a telecommunication facility, while providing a specific definition of a data center.
Horsley Witten Group has been engaged to start developing data center regulations and will start talking to the commission about its thoughts about whether data centers should be allowed at all, Jones said. According to a contract signed with the town in April, Horsley Witten Group will provide the services for a $7,000 fee.
Horsley Witten Group will research data center impacts, including water use, cleaning materials, fuel supply, electronic waste, fire suppression and packaging disposal, “and deliver a memorandum to the Town describing our findings, listing potential impacts of concern, and discussing best practices related to construction and operations,” according to the contract. The company then will discuss with the commission and can amend the memorandum and then draft proposed zoning regulations for review.
Jones said the public comments the town has received were all in favor of a moratorium on data centers.
Resident Kristen Earls spoke in support of the moratorium, as did eight other people at last week’s hearing held at the Town Hall Annex and via Zoom.
“I really appreciate you guys taking the time to develop a considered position regarding this very complex industrial use with impacts on neighbors, community health and well-being, air, water, wildlife, energy and economics,” Earls said.
“When the state legislature passed the fast-tracking legislation for data centers, they also said they were going to pass legislation that would provide environmental protections for towns, which they never did, so you and all the towns in Connecticut are on your own,” said Elizabeth Raisbeck, co-chair of Groton Conservation Advocates.
“There are many serious public health issues as well as environmental issues related to data centers, which we have learned about over the last several months, and because of the complexity of the issues that these data centers present, it’s very important that you have some moratorium and we strongly support a one-year moratorium because it’s going to take you a while to figure this out,” she added, noting that the commission will need to bring in a number of experts to speak about issues such as noise pollution and air pollution from generators.
Jones said the text amendment approved will apply to only the town, and does not apply to the City of Groton, Noank or Groton Long Point.
Town Manager John Burt said he agreed with the moratorium: “I agree that it’s important to take their time to make sure there are sound rules in place to protect any of our residents should a data center request to locate here in the future,” he told The Day.
The Town Council voted 5-1, with three abstentions, in March to stop pursuing efforts for a proposed municipal host fee agreement with NE Edge LLC for a data center proposed on land between Hazelnut Hill Road and Flanders Road, south of I-95. The council raised concerns, including about the noise that data centers emit and the need for more information.
Residents at a previous meeting overwhelmingly had spoken against the data center proposal and its impacts on noise, the environment and property values.
The Town Council had signed a host fee agreement with developer Gotspace Data Partners on April 7, 2021, which will lapse five years from the date of signing. Jones said Gotspace has not submitted an application to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a specific data center proposal and the commission will not process any such application during the moratorium.
Burt said he has not heard from Gotspace or any other data center developer.
A representative for Gotspace did not immediately have a comment.