On September 6, at the end of a long meeting of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, took the microphone. First of all, she thanked the voters for their help in various things. Then she lit up in Amazon.
Lawson used his “supervisor time” to express his displeasure, even “disgust,” at the way the massive data center company had treated residents of the Great Oak subdivision near Manassas, who complained about the noise from an Amazon resort next door.
Amazon Web Services had refused to answer basic questions posed to the company, she said. “All the community asks about these noise issues is AWS, their standardized answer is always ‘It’s proprietary’. It’s proprietary to the point where, like, they won’t even tell you what they ate for lunch.
Dale Browne, president of the Great Oak Homeowners Association, said Amazon has been more cooperative since Lawson’s rant and is working on a new solution to try to address the noise issue. But he said the company had been “very obtuse” and “a master launderer” in the past.
It’s not just Amazon – other data centers have the same bent. “Large scale data center groups are well known for their absolute secrecy. Everything in the industry is opaque. And it’s really, really hard to get information of any kind,” said a national real estate broker, who ironically asked not to be named because he works with the industry.
In Prince William County and elsewhere, data center companies routinely ask local officials to sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from discussing company information. In Prince William and Loudoun, data center projects may be given codenames, such as “Buffalo” or “Viper” to hide their identity. In Fauquier County, secrecy tracked a zoning code amendment that paved the way for an Amazon app for a data center
Information suppression tends to take three forms: hiding ownership of projects behind LLCs, forcing public officials to sign NDAs that protect construction plans, and refusing to disclose information the company deems proprietary. “I’m a big believer in open government, but I also understand that in business circumstances sometimes demand discretion on certain projects,” Loudoun County Economic Development Manager Buddy Rizer said.
More than other companies, data centers want to maintain site security, keep competition at bay and protect themselves from protests and even lawsuits, industry insiders say. But the practices can make it difficult for residents to know what’s going to be built next, who’s building it, complain to a data center creating problems for the neighborhood – or just gather basic information.
In Prince William, citizen activist Bill Wright questioned a May 2021 statement by County Economic Development Director Christina Winn that most data center companies were looking for lots of 100 acres or more for new developments, and that the county is running out of resources. land suitable for industry. Wright asked Winn for data to verify his claim. She replied in an email that since conversations with data center prospects are under NDA, she could not provide the data.
Winn confirmed this in an interview. “It’s the norm, it’s not something unusual. And it’s not just for data centers,” she said.
Companies can request an NDA to prevent owners from raising their prices, to keep financial information private when discussing incentives, or even to hide their plans from their own employees.
As data center plans progress, they remain covered by NDAs until they expire. When the plans reach the Prince William County Development Services office, where building plans are submitted and reviewed, they may still be under the NDA, which means they are not necessarily open to the public. Winn said that since she signs NDAs on behalf of the county, if she shares information with county officials, they too cannot release it.
If a citizen asks to see plans for a data center, a county staff member should call the county attorney, who asks Winn if the plans are under an NDA. If so, then Winn should ask the company if the plans can be partially or fully released. But Winn said as projects move forward, “eventually” information comes out.
Winn also said the Prince William County Department of Economic Development has signed NDAs with QTS and Compass – the two data center companies that have submitted rezoning applications under the “Prince William Digital Gateway”, a plan to open 2,100 county acres. -protected rural crescent to data center development. QTS has also filed a targeted industry application, she said, while Compass has yet to file those documents.
Dr Steve Pleickhardt, a dentist and chairman of Amberleigh Station HOA in Bristow, said he met an NDA when he went to county officials to find out who was maintaining the cables in the trenches near his subdivision . County officials told him, “We have to ask the company; it’s under an NDA,” he said. After her HOA hired an attorney, they finally got the information. It was Google, which has a data center nearby.
“So with the NDA they can get away with a lot. You know they can deny you and forget the [Freedom of Information Act],” he said. Pleickhardt said he also encountered difficulties trying to obtain information about a proposed 11-building data center campus at Amberleigh Station.
“The ordinary citizen is completely lost until the first tree falls,” he said.
Arrenton data center plans remain opaque
In Warrenton, Amazon’s attempt to build a data center was shrouded in secrecy from the start. More recently, the company postponed without giving any reason two working sessions of the planning commission. And questions are also swirling around the NDAs signed by city officials and their duration.
A lingering mystery is why the city’s planning staff proposed a zoning change to allow data centers in the city, when some of the city’s planning commissioners would have preferred the change to be requested by the requester from the data center itself – in this case, Amazon.
An exchange at a planning commission meeting on May 25, 2021 provides a clue. When presenting the proposed zoning change, Warrenton Community Development Manager Rob Walton referred to a data center “candidate” and an “interested entity.”
Planning Commissioner James Lawrence then asked why city staff and council were proposing the amendment, instead of the applicant – which would be better if a business wanted to change a city law.
Walton said the city has yet to receive an official application — just “some interest.” So, he says, the council “decided to go ahead and initiate the text, instead of having the plaintiff [do it]. I know data centers generally like to remain anonymous as long as possible as users of the data center,” he said.
City staff, primarily then-City Managers Brandie Schaeffer and Walton, had told planning commissioners and council members that the rezoning was necessary because of the general interest of data centers. But a handwritten note recently released by FOIA shows that a city staffer met with Amazon officials two weeks before the planning commission meeting and learned key details of Amazon’s project, none of which were reported. was shared with the planning commission.
After Amazon lawyer John Foote revealed much of Amazon’s plan at a planning commission meeting in June 2021, the zoning amendment was due for consideration by city council. But Amazon asked for NDAs and held private meetings with city council and planning commission members ahead of that meeting. At the meeting, the board approved the text amendment, clearing the way for Amazon to apply to build its project. Yet as recently as July 2022, the city attorney ruled that council members should be wary of talking to the press about the Amazon project or the zoning process because of NDAs.
On September 9, Amazon filed more than 200 pages of documents in support of its project application. The new filing answered several questions posed by city planners, but did not say what Amazon would pay in taxes — a primary reason for allowing data centers in Warrenton.
In an August 3, 2021 email obtained via FOIA, Walton wrote that the data center could potentially generate $4.6 million for Warrenton and $10.6 million for Fauquier County over five years.
Fauquier County Tax Commissioner Eric Maybach said he has more accurate numbers but could not release them because they were based on confidential information provided to him by Amazon. Amazon’s latest filing only says Amazon’s taxes “will help promote a diverse, equitable, and stable tax base” — but doesn’t provide any numbers.