A Data Center Build: Site Development, Permits & Zoning

Once the design wheels are turning, it’s time to work with state and local governments on site development, permits and zoning. Many people groan at the thought of the politics involved, but this can actually be a rewarding chance to engage your community—and also improve business relationships, writes Shawn Miles of Greenhouse Data.

Shawn Mills is a technology entrepreneur, founding member and president of Green House Data. You can find him on Twitter at @tshawnmills.

shawn_mills_tnSHAWN MILLS
Greenhouse Data

This article series follows the development process of a new data center, focusing on how smaller operators can build highly energy efficient facilities without the resources of larger companies. Previous entries included planning for expansion, selecting a site, finding incentives, and deciding whether a realty and/or design partner is right for you and designing your new facility.

Once the design wheels are turning, it’s time to work with state and local governments on site development, permits and zoning. Many people groan at the thought of the politics involved, but this can actually be a rewarding chance to engage your community—and also improve business relationships.

Check Under Every Rock for Incentives

After selecting a site, you should contact the local government to see if any additional development incentives exist. In Green House Data’s case, the City of Cheyenne Building and Development Office has been very good to work with. We’ve all heard stories about the permit process and jumping through hoops to get there. In the Compass Data Center build series here on Data Center Knowledge, the meetings sound awfully boring. They definitely can be. Mr. Curtis also makes a great point when he describes the process as not decided on technical merits, but a subjective basis. Technical aspects of the building are definitely discussed, but often times this process is as much about forging relationships as it is tackling nuts and bolts.

Choosing a location that has "incentivized" data centers can once again work on your side here. These areas want your business and they will go out of their way to establish a partnership. To start with, Cheyenne’s economic development entities like Cheyenne LEADS and the Wyoming Business Council helped us with things like acquiring the land at a very competitive price. Because we are aligned in our business goals (we want a new facility, they want more jobs and industry), local officials can actually help everything go more smoothly when working though both state and city permitting. This strong working relationship has helped us negotiate the challenges of timing, and has been invaluable in helping us sort out documentation, making sure meetings are productive, and track many of the details of this large project.

Stay on Top of Scheduling

Whether you have a sympathetic local government or an indifferent one, you’ll still need to be prepared to tackle a lengthy documents and meetings. Missing deadlines can set you back weeks because everything is on a timetable. Every municipality will have different processes, but there are frequently overall similarities. In Cheyenne, it more or less goes as follows, including anticipated timeframes:

  • Annexation: If necessary, land adjacent to existing cities may need to be annexed (up to 5 months)
  • Platting: Platting is the subdivision of plots. The process may be split into Preliminary and Final stages (3 – 5 months)
  • Zoning: Different areas of cities are zoned for different purposes, like residential, industrial, etc. If the zone must be changed for your use, it requires public notice, application, multiple commissions/board approval (3 months)
  • Site plan: Site plan reviews are generally required for new construction and analyze access, parking, landscaping, drainage report, traffic study, setbacks, and more. If you request a variance, additional time applies (10 days – 6 weeks)
  • Building plan review: Building plans are submitted to a specific department and require a fee. They can be reviewed at any point during the development process and must include a “Plot Plan,” an expanded Site Plan (3 week minimum)
  • Construction plan review: Engineering drawings for the development site are checked by a separate office (2 weeks minimum)
  • Grading permit: If the site requires grading, a separate permit must be obtained and plans must be reviewed. This involves an application and fees (2 weeks minimum)
  • Right-of-way-permit: For development within the City’s Right of Way, a separate permit is required, with its own application and fees
  • Building permit: This must be obtained prior to starting any construction, can only be issued to a licensed contractor, and requires an application and fees and approval of the Building Plan and Site Plan
  • Sign permit: If you plan on erecting signage a separate application and permit are required.
  • Site plan Certificate of Compliance: Once the Site Plan has been approved you can obtain this certificate, which allows you to get a Certificate of Occupancy

Phew! It’s a long list, and even though many of the steps can overlap, it takes a long time. With almost every step requiring its own application, permit and review process, there are a lot of dates to keep track of. Many of the review sessions involved take place on specific dates due to public notice or other factors, meaning it is vital that you stay on top of your calendar.

Codes: the Key to Approval

For Building and Site plans, local building codes will be essential to your success. The required codes are probably listed on your municipality website, and most cities adhere to International Building Codes (including Residential/Mechanical/Plumbing/Electrical and so on).

As you designed your facility with your development partners, you should have gotten a good overview of building code requirements, which often times clash with your infrastructure needs. Building inspectors and permit approvers are more focused on the safety of individuals than the efficiency of your building. Be sure to talk through many of your features with your designers so you can explain your rationale to the permitting and inspection crews.

Now that you’ve conquered the permit process, it’s finally time to start building! Our next entry will wrap things up as we break ground and start construction.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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