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Millington votes, revotes on amended zoning ordinance that allows data centers

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MILLINGTON — An amended zoning ordinance that allows data centers riled up a few folks who called into the mayor and council meeting here July 14.

They also were upset that the zoning text amendment seemed to have been adopted without the advertised public hearing.

Under the heading of Old Business, Resolution 2020-05 was adopted unanimously without being read aloud and without any discussion. Councilman Kevin Hemstock made the motion to approve the resolution; Councilman Wayne Starkey seconded the motion.

Mayor C.J. Morales and Councilwoman Shelly Holland joined Hemstock and Starkey in voting for approval.

Councilman Eli Manning did not attend the meeting.

Due to restrictions placed on gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, the public’s only way to participate in the meeting was by telephone. Town Administrator Jo Manning, Morales and the council members — observing the proper physical distancing — attended the meeting in person in town hall.

About 16½ minutes into what turned out to be an hour-long meeting, in the part at the end of the agenda reserved for public comments, caller Janet Christensen-Lewis asked, “Are you not going to have a hearing on the resolution? ... There was supposed to be a hearing tonight on Resolution 2020-05, which is to amend the town’s zoning ordinance.”

“The public meeting was on June 9,” Morales told Christensen-Lewis.

When Christensen-Lewis read from the Town of Millington’s website about the public hearing scheduled for July 14, Morales responded, “We’ve done that and already voted on it.”

Citing the notice on the town’s website advertising that public statements on the resolution would be accepted, Millington resident Nevin Steffy said to the mayor, “There was no public offering. ... The vote was done and then you asked us for our input. That’s wrong.”

After a back-and-forth between Morales and Christensen-Lewis about the notice on the town’s website for a public hearing at the July 14 meeting, Hemstock joined the conversation.

“On June 9, we advertised for a public hearing on June 9. I’m not sure what the website says and I’ll let Jo (Manning) address that,” Hemstock said. “We held a public hearing on June 9 in reference to Resolution 2020-05.”

In an effort to clarify things, Manning told Christensen-Lewis that the ordinance was introduced at the June 9 meeting and it was adopted earlier in the July 14 meeting.

In what appeared to be a clerical error, the agenda for the July 14 meeting did not specifically say “public hearing” as was advertised on the town’s website and in the legal notices of the Kent County News.

Hemstock, a former editor of the Kent County News, agreed with Christensen-Lewis that a public hearing on the resolution should be held.

He motioned that Resolution 2020-05 be re-addressed, the motion carried unanimously and a public hearing was held.

Hemstock read the resolution into the record.

While the text amendment would allow artisan industrial businesses, craft distillery and microbrewery establishments, farm breweries, wineries and medical cannabis facilities, as well as data centers, the callers commented only on data centers.

Thomas Kocubinski, who identified himself as a property owner in the county, said his experience as an architect and planner led him to see data centers as “special needs buildings” with serious environmental and community implications.

Data processing centers require staggering amounts of water and electricity for cooling and produce excessive noise, sometimes heard for miles, Kocubinski said. Huge diesel generators up to 3,000 horsepower are needed to provide backup power. Greenhouse gas emissions are on par with the aviation industry, he said.

Kocubinski said he opposed this resolution because data centers are not included under Article 8 of the zoning ordinance and are a proposed permitted use in the agricultural zone.

He said data centers should be permitted only in commercial and industrial zones and should be limited to Tier I and Tier II facilities, which are at the smaller end of the spectrum.

Kocubinski said restrictions and guidelines should be included in the ordinance. “Without parameters, how can the planning staff evaluate an application?” he asked.

He said Resolution 2020-05 “prioritizes tax revenue over public welfare and allows a developer to pursue approval for a center of any tier with zero restrictions.”

Town Administrator Manning told Christensen-Lewis that “allowable” does not mean blanket permission. She said the applicant would still need approval from the planning commission regarding site development.

“This is just to allow the conversation to start,” Manning said.

This is not a use by right, Hemstock added, explaining that the planning commission would consider requests on a case-by-case basis.

“Before we’d approve a data center, I’m pretty sure we would do a lot of homework on that because that would not be an ordinary project or a small project,” Morales said.

“Don’t you think you should do that before putting it into your zoning ordinance, that you should actually have some basis for deciding that it would even come before the planning commission,” asked Christensen-Lewis, a Millington area resident who is chairperson of the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance.

Hemstock acknowledged that Christensen-Lewis had made a good point, and he thanked her.

But he basically said the same things as Manning and Morales.

“What we’re doing is allowing someone to walk into town and say, ‘Hey, I want to open a data center’ and we would say, “Good, go see the planning commission and they’ll talk about it with you and they’ll describe what kind of limits we would have on it and all that sort of thing. I would say that if it’s not mentioned in there, they can’t even talk about it. ... We’re just giving them the option.”

No one has approached the town about a data center, Manning said.

Once the public hearing was closed, the open meeting was resumed and Holland made the motion to approve the resolution. Hemstock seconded the motion to allow for discussion.

He recommended that a vote be delayed for a month “so that we can reconsider some things.”

There was no other discussion.

The amended zoning ordinance was approved by a 4-0 vote, for a second time.

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