Data Center Development Diary: Meet The Planners

Planning commission meetings are generally a cure for insomina, but Chris Curtis of Compass Datacenters hangs in at the local planning commission to further his project. Day 3 proves educational as he learns about the commission's requirements for "vegetative screening" and a "public gathering" place on the data center site.

Chris Curtis is the co-founder and SVP of Development for Compass Datacenters. We are publishing a series of posts from Chris that will take you inside the byzantine world of data center development, shedding a pro's light on the many aspects of the development process. See Day 2 for previous installment.


Planning commission meetings are not terribly exciting. They aren’t highly attended and you typically spend the time semi-drowsing until they reach your project on the agenda. Sometimes the festivities are enlivened by an impassioned plea by some old curmudgeon explaining why “he just has to have” that "fill-in the-blank" eyesore in his backyard, or doesn’t want that "fill-in-the-blank" eyesore in his backyard, but there doesn’t appear to be anyone fitting that description in the audience tonight.

Appearing at the Municipal Meeting

The meeting room is the typical “municipal beige”—-do all public buildings get their linoleum from the same place?—and I alternate between reviewing what I’m going to say and hoping that nobody noticed that head bob. Fortunately, the Samsonite chair I’ve selected is from the “Marque de Sade Collection” and sleep wouldn’t be an option no matter how somnambulant the proceedings.

Just as I begin to wonder if I’ll ever feel my legs again, the commission head calls out “Compass Datacenters” and briefly describes that I am here seeking a design variance as I make my way to the podium. The problem that I’m trying to solve is the city’s guidelines dictate that any road facing building must be the front of the building. Unfortunately for me, adherence to this standard would mean that we would not be able to build the five (5) data centers that we have planned for the site. The only way that this plan works is if the side of the first building that we are here to discuss faces the street. This means that this discussion will not be decided on technical merits (such as the kind of “I think we all agree that if we use 6-inch steel framing every 4 feet, this will bring the building up to code” but on a subjective basis instead.) In other words, I am here to talk to these five pillars of the community about how the data center will look.

On the surface, gaining this variance shouldn’t be a problem. The building that was previously located on the site was a metal framed plastic injection factory, hardly an architectural wonder. However, in the years since the factory’s construction the city has adopted rigid requirements regarding the visual appeal of all new facilities. I’ve worked with my architect and engineer to come up with a couple of alternatives that we think address the council’s concerns while enabling us to implement our desired configuration.

Data Center Design Aesthetics

Over the years I’ve come to find that the best strategy in these situations is to speak very little and let them ask me questions. My own version of “developer’s rope-a-dope” as it was. I’m not sure if the length of the overall agenda has taken its toll or our design alternatives have struck just the right chord, but I am only required to answer a few perfunctory questions before my variance is granted.

Local zoning often makes for odd bedfellows. Some locations have virtually no classifications to define what may be developed in any given area and you could place a data center between the local grade school and an adult bookstore (but fortunately for community decorum these “dens of anarchy” have rapidly become a thing of the past). That being said, anomalies in zoning do exist and are encountered quite frequently. In our case, there are two houses next to the property we have purchased, and even though the entire area (including the houses) is zoned “light industrial” we must make provisions to shield our operations from these aged domiciles.

Trees and Screening

As a result of this “housing creep,” we are required to provide “vegetative screening” around three sides of the property. Vegetative screening is a nice euphemism for trees. Per the requirements we must plant trees (a lot of them) with trunks of no less than 3-inch to 4-inch in diameter. Not redwoods, but not shrubs either. The old phrase, “from tiny acorns mighty oak trees do grow” obviously does not apply here. Now I’m as green as the next guy, but this is an expense I would prefer to avoid, so I set off in search of the owner of the two houses to see if we could arrive at a mutually agreed upon resolution.

In beginning my search, I immediately found out their original owner was dead. Since it takes two to negotiate, I then undertake an extensive review of tax roles and assorted other documents before I successfully located the executor of the estate. The executor, a retired minister, was sympathetic to my plight but as we mutually researched the issue further it became clear that we had no recourse to avoid planting a small forest around the facility. At least the local Arbor society will be happy.

In concert with learning that my data center will become a focal point for local flora, I am informed that I must also incorporate a “Public Gathering” space into our site development. Although data centers are not usually the nexus for public gatherings - customers tend to disapprove - this is an unavoidable requirement. Naturally, questions abound. For example, just how many people does it take to constitute a public gathering? Two, 35, 110? Do they need a permit? For a developer, the search for clarity never ends.

In the next installment: I solve the public gathering dilemma, build a storm detention pond and seek final site approval.

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