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AT&T says proposed Short Hill site not a ‘data center’

“This is not a data center,” Bob Ericksen, a project manager for AT&T, told an eager crowd of over 100 Loudoun County residents packed into the Game Protective Association on Monday as they waited for answers from the applicant of the proposed 3.5-acre telephone transmission facility on top of Short Hill Mountain.

“It's not a data center, it doesn't store data, that's not what it does,” Ericksen stressed. “It doesn't use the same type of capacity that a data center uses. This is switching, and this is [for] transmission of the information highway … this isn't a data center.”

But with a facility that's proposed annual water usage is slated for 2 million gallons or more, coupled with a 230,000-gallon underground diesel fuel storage capacity in a site that needs at least four 4 megawatt generators to power itself – Loudoun county residents say they just aren't buying it.

“These guys to me are flat out lying,” long-time Loudoun County resident Michael Mock, who has a military and telecom background, told the Times-Mirror.

“The fact that they're gonna have 60 new employees up there on a 24/7 watch, that makes absolutely zero sense to me coming from a telecom-related background as to what they're gonna be doing,” Mock said. “Typically, you go smaller, more compact, it brings more heat and it's less people because its more automated. They're heading in the exact opposite direction, so I'm really not buying the whole you know, this is a telecom switching network.”

Approval deadline looms

Earlier in the year, the county's planning commission gave AT&T the approval to build a massive, 3.5-acre facility, towering as high as 35 feet tall – essentially a data center – at the top of Short Hill on the ridge between Hillsboro and Lovettsville.

The fate of the project, however, has not yet been decided. In order to expand, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors must grant the applicant a commission permit. On May 19, the board voted unanimously to delay consideration of a commission permit for the project's expansion and moved the item to its June 23 business meeting.

The applicants of the facility are asking to install “modern data transmission and processing equipment” to support its already existent manned communications facility, which has been functional since the Cold War era.

Meanwhile, zoning administration staff have concluded that the proposed facility would be considered a “utility substation, transmission,” – a facility that serves as a part of a “regional interconnecting grid system” providing for the “transformation, switching and distribution of both transmission voltage and/or distribution voltages, transmits natural gas, television or telephone signals.”

Skepticism remains

Throughout the Monday meeting, skeptical residents pressed the U.S. telecommunications giant on why the facility needed to be built on Short Hill and how it would specifically benefit Loudoun County and those in Lovettsville. Others voiced their concerns about the impact the facility would have on the community's water and whether the site would be used for any military applications.

“I guess it's reliability,” Scott Rushin, a principal network architect for AT&T, responded hesitantly when asked what exactly the Lovettsville community would get extra that the rest of the country does not with the proposed facility.

The AT&T representatives explained that as the demand for faster and more reliable data has increased, the company could only meet that demand by having a larger capacity to transmit that information to where it needs to go. They also said that the company needed its already existing underground infrastructure at the site for the expansion of its project.

“Are you willing to say for the record to all of us and to the media, that the above ground facility … is 100 percent civilian applications because you are pitching this project to us that it's going to be giving us better phone service, better cell service, better 9/11 service, better county communications,” a concerned resident asked the AT&T representatives. “If this has any military application I think you need to stay underground.”

Ericksen said that he did not have “the delineation of what's used on which levels in the building,” and told the resident that he could not directly address her concern.

Laurie Haley of Lovettsville, who lives directly under the site, says that for the past 10 years she has been hearing loud sounds from the mountain and said that despite finally having a meeting with the applicants she still has many questions and concerns.

“Noise,” she said when asked what her biggest concern was after the meeting. “The water. I had no idea about the water supply. That's a lot of water. Our wells aren't that deep, that's a huge amount.”

Loudoun County Supervisors Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) also attended the meeting and told residents when it concluded that they were wary in their support of the project in its current application.

“There's nothing like this facility anywhere else in Loudoun County, maybe it's not a data center, I don't know what it is, but it sure looks like a data center,” Higgins said, adding that he thought the planning commission had not done its job.

The board now has less than 30 days to decide whether to grant the applicants with a commission permit. In the meantime, residents have launched petitions and websites to inform the community about the project and persuade the Board of Supervisors to deny the applicants' commission permit.

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