Rules Confusion Clouds Spurt of N. Virginia Data Centers

By Cleary, Mike | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 20, 2000 | Go to article overview

Rules Confusion Clouds Spurt of N. Virginia Data Centers


Cleary, Mike, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


AboveNet Communications just bought a parcel near Reston so it can build a $150 million, 265,000-square-foot data center.

It's the kind of deal that Internet companies are racing to set up in Northern Virginia, as the e-commerce industry goes through a growth spurt. Developers are eager to bring them the real estate they need while demand lasts.

"The emerging technology demands the service today," said Tom Hirst, president of Mason Hirst, owner of the Lake Fairfax Business Center, which will now have its second AboveNet facility.

"Those who get big market share take the advantage," he said. "It's a horse race, and whoever gets the biggest first will be the next America Online," meaning they'll dominate their segment of the Internet industry.

But some of these deals are snagging on decades-old land use rules that haven't adjusted completely to the new kind of building they require. And it's happening in Loudoun County, the very place where data centers are flocking to be near the Internet nexus created by America Online and MCI/WorldCom.

Loudoun County has defined data centers as office uses, a designation that covers most commercial and industrial ground, but forces some owners to apply for special exceptions - or prevents them from building data centers at all, said one county official.

"There are a few (who cannot build the centers) and we're trying to give them encouragement that it will be changed during the zoning amendment process," said Robyn Bailey, marketing manager for the Department of Economic Development.

The delays of getting a special exception can take eight to nine months, said Antonio Calabrese, a land-use attorney with McGuire Woods Battle & Boothe.

That bothers developers, always wary of risk and who seek the clearest path to find, permit and build their projects, said one broker.

"It's a big concern," said Mark Larsen, senior vice president with CB Richard Ellis. Developers would rather get permission first, even if it adds extra time, than start building in hopes of winning permission, he said.

An official at one Northern Virginia development company said the requirement of a special exception was making it think twice about buying a Loudoun County property where it wants to build a data center. The official asked not to be identified and refused to identify the site.

To clear up some of the confusion, Fairfax and Loudoun counties have had to decide recently exactly how to classify data centers, which are essentially offices for computers. Often they are built as "flex" structures, so-called because they can be used for a variety of purposes, including office space, warehousing, or light industry.

In Fairfax County, officials decided a month ago that data centers were "telecommunications facilities," which allows them on all commercially zoned ground in the county. Loudoun doesn't have such a designation, but it picked the closest definition it could, Mr. Calabrese said.

"Office was the most logical," he said. Nevertheless, it wasn't broad enough to cover every situation, he said.

"There's such a frenzy of interest, everybody is not going to be taken care of," Mr. Calabrese said.

More than 30 data centers have been established in the Washington metropolitan area, and several more are looking to be established. Those include Verio, Visa and also Broadband Office, a joint venture of several real estate investment trusts that expects to conclude a data center deal as early as today. …

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