As AT&T presses its controversial plan to expand its decades-old switching station buried on Short Hill Mountain, people who live around the ridge have more questions than answers.
More than 20 people turned up to speak during last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting—and many of those were among the more than 200 who showed up Monday night at a meeting in Lovettsville hosted by Parsons Environment and Infrastructure Group Inc., the firm representing AT&T on its county applications.
Loudouners want to know what, exactly, is going in the proposed building’s two-story, 160,000-square-foot footprint, which will go on top of an existing underground facility, along with eight backup generators and 22 air coolers. They want to know what impact the vastly expanded facility will have on the mountain and on the people who live at its base or who enjoy the view of Short Hill. And they want to know why this new facility isn’t being regulated as a data center, which is not allowed in that area.
“I’ve been in the telecommunications industry for almost 30 years, I’ve worked in both landline and mobile telecommunications, and everything about this application reads ‘data center,’” William Dudley told supervisors during their May 19 meeting.
Dan Fedick, an engineer and farmer who says he’s worked around and managed data centers for Verizon, AOL, Oracle, and the U.S. Air Force, noted the enormous amount of backup power generation proposed in the application—32 megawatts, enough to provide about 15 megawatts of power to the facility with industry-standard double redundancy.
“There is not a telecommunications facility on earth that needs that much power and cooling unless they’re powering a mass data storage and server,” Fedick said.
Even county supervisors are skeptical.
“I can tell you for sure it isn’t a transmissions substation,” said Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), whose district includes the Short Hill Mountain facility. “The people I work for build those, and it’s not one of them.”
He is the vice president of labor relations at the National Electrical Contractors Association.
“It’s not a data center,” said AT&T Project Manager Bob Ericksen during Monday’s Lovettsville meeting. “There’s a difference between switching and transmitting data and being a data center. There’s a whole different ballpark on that one. They look a lot different, too, other than the outside.”
Timing is tight.
The application to build was originally filed for a special exception permit, which requires a more thorough review process and public hearings at the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.
The process of approving the new structure was accelerated in February by a county staff determination that the facility is classified as “utility substation transmission,” a permitted use in the area. Under that rule, the applicant need only win a new commission permit. Once the planning commission has approved that permit—it did on April 25—the Board of Supervisors has 60 days to either ratify or overrule the action. If it does nothing, at the end of those 60 days, the permit is automatically granted. The deadline for board action is June 23.
“The entire discussion changed when the decision was made to categorize this not as a data center, but through a commission permit process as a telecommunications facility,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “So I think one of the reasons a lot of residents feel this was rushed was because the processes are different.”
He denied any suggestion that there was a “nefarious plot” by county staff members.
“I’ve never encountered our staff doing something like that with one of these applications,” he said.
“I am flabbergasted that this application was somehow allowed to transform itself from a special exception into a commission permit,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “I don’t know why that was permitted. I would say, based on what we’re learning, that should not have been permitted.”
Area residents also have raised questions about what the existing underground facility on Short Hill—built in the 1960s—is being used for. The county staff relied entirely on information provided by the applicant for its review of the project. AT&T Project Manager Bob Ericksen said the Short Hill site is an important node in AT&T’s network.
“The whole intent of this is that we are going to beef up a key point in our network, and we need that network in order to service this area,” Ericksen said. He argues that, although AT&T does not provide local service in the area, other providers use its network for long distance calls.
Under detailed questioning from the public, though, representatives from Parsons and AT&T got vague.
“The elephant in the room here is the military application,” resident Melani Carty said. She pressed Ericksen and others on the military and civilian uses of the building, and asked him if he could say that all of the above ground levels are for civilian applications.
“I don’t have the delineation of what’s used on which levels of the building,” Ericksen replied. When pressed on how many levels are in the facility, he responded only “two levels aboveground.”
Residents at the foot of the mountain say they think the facility has been expanding underground, as well. Angie McDevitt, who lives on Nicewarner Lane off Mountain Road in Lovettsville, says she’s heard blasting over the past several years.
“It’s enough to rattle the back of your house, and it goes on for three or four months at a time,” McDevitt said.
The facility was originally permitted all underground in 1962.
“It was a very different era,” said AT&T Principal Network Architect Scott Rushin. “I’ll just say that it was the Cold War era. Every facility had to be hardened.”
“I’m afraid we don’t know everything here, and maybe we’re not allowed to know everything here, because we all know some of the things that occur in those areas,” said board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “But I also don’t want this hiding behind the guise of a transmission station under a commission permit if it really is something else.”
However, he and Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) cautioned that if the board decides to overrule the commission permit, it will need to have good legal reasons.
“We can’t simply decide we don’t like something and we’re denying it,” Letourneau said. “We have to have findings for denial that will stand up in court. They have to be legally sound.”
Higgins was joined by fellow western supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) in opposing the commission permit outright at both the board meeting and Lovettsville meeting.
“We’ve got less than 30 days, and anything done to mitigate the problems are pretty much voluntary,” Higgins said. “I think the Planning Commission did not do their jobs, and I want to clarify that I do not mean [Commissioner] Eugene Scheel (Catoctin).”
Higgins said he and Scheel, who voted against the permit, asked the Planning Commission for a meeting about the application, but didn’t get one until the meeting in April when it was approved.
“If it’s possible to mitigate it, you’re going to have to go above and beyond to make that happen,” Higgins said. “I’m just in a situation that I can’t go for this in any way, shape, or form.”
A group of citizens have come together to launch a website about the project, http://www.saveruralloudoun.org/.