GROTON — In an emotionally-charged town council meeting Wednesday night, nearly 50 residents signed up to speak about the data center proposed on Flanders Road by NE Edge.
Most asked the council to stop or slow down the project, and to consider a number risk factors, including questions about the integrity of the company’s manager.
A representative from NE Edge defended the proposal, saying that the information the public had heard was false and needed to be corrected.
Mayor Juan Melendez Jr. said that last week Thomas Quinn, manager of NE Edge, had requested the council vote on the host fee agreement this week. But, on Monday Quinn asked to cancel the vote because he said he wanted to allow more time to address the concerns of the public.
Under new state legislation, data centers are exempt from property taxes if they agree to pay a fee to the town instead. According to the host fee agreement, NE Edge would pay Groton $1.5 million a year for every building with a capacity greater than 32 megawatts.
With 47 people signed up to speak in person and on Zoom, Melendez set the time limit at three minutes per person. After several citizens spoke, councilor Portia Bordelon asked that the time limit be increased to five minutes per person, which the council approved.
The first speaker was Frank Bohlen, of Mystic, a member of the town’s Resilience and Sustainability Task Force, who said that the proposed data center would greatly increase the town’s carbon footprint because of the 100 and 250 megawatts of electricity required. He said the project would contradict the town’s recent resolution to address climate change, as well as the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and by 80 percent by 2050.
“That’s a colossal amount of energy for a single facility,” said Bohlen, adding that the South Fork offshore wind project on Long Island was set to produce 132 megawatts of power. “You would require all of that capacity and it may not still be enough.”
Larry Dunn, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, said the commission did not support or oppose the data center because as long as the facility meets the current building and zoning requirements and wetland restrictions, a data center could be built.
“The real question is does the town gain from the trade off of taxes for a fee and gain the opportunity to ensure there’s minimal impact on the Town of Groton’s environment?” he said.
“The host agreement provides a unique and unprecedented opportunity to control the environmental impact on a facility built on private property and industrial mixed use zone.”
He said the hosting fees, instead of taxes, to build the facility are earned only if the facility meets green data center requirements, including purchasing specific diesel generators to restrict pollution, direction on recycling and storage of hazardous materials, measuring and limiting noise pollution, and donating to the town 50 acres of open space in support of the town’s greenbelt plan.
“In summary, we believe the hosting agreement does limit the environmental impacts,” he said, and commended the town staff for addressing the environmental concerns his commission raised.
Jesse Macdougall, a resident of Flanders Road who lives across the street from the proposed project, said the host fee agreement language needs to go further to include increased setbacks and height limitations, limitation of expansion, and restrictions on light pollution, as well as specific language about how to handle violations if the developer does not comply.
“If this council wants to hitch their legacy to this project then we need to find a design solution that works for everyone, and I think we need time to do that,” Macdougall said.
Claiborne Vanzandt questioned how the council could consider the project without an environmental impact statement. “It’s terribly important that we do a full fledged, honest to goodness Environmental Impact Statement before we proceed with this project.”
Catherine Pratt talked about a web of lawsuits surrounding GotSpace, Quinn’s former company where he was CEO, as well as his former business partner Nicholas Fiorello, and attorney George McLaughtlin. “How can this group of individuals be successful with this level of chaos, conflict and dysfunction?” Pratt asked the council.
Elizabeth Raisbeck questioned Quinn’s previous experience and success in building data centers. She said the council should know — as a prerequisite — who the proposed end user would be as well as the capital sources and engineering construction partners before proceeding. “This is at minimum a $200 million endeavor that will impact the community for 20 to 30 years.”
Denise Katusha said she was concerned about the confidentiality language in the agreement, which covers construction information, economic information, rehab improvements, leasing and or transference of ownership of the qualified data center. “Given their history, how can you even say they would satisfy all requirements of the agreement, or that they wouldn’t hesitate to file a petition for bankruptcy?”
Eugenia Villagro said that the data center will reverse the town’s resolution to address global warming, which included seeking ways to reduce energy consumption in town operations as a step toward a low carbon future. “How is it that we went from the sensible resolution that was years in the making to a business-as-usual rolling out of the red carpet to New England Edge to come on in tax free and build a data center that will essentially undo everything stated in that resolution?” she asked.
Mary Ellen Furlong said that Paige Bronk, economic and community development manager for Groton, and Jon Reiner, director of development for the town, were not performing their jobs properly, considering, she said, that Jeff Respler of the Oral School project and Quinn were both of “dubious backgrounds to say the least” and “have no experience in the type of projects they are proposing.”
“When a proposal comes before the town council, it should have been thoroughly vetted and documented and not full of unpleasant surprises… They should be able to trust their own staff. If Groton fails to do this, the only thing that’s going to get developed here will be more lawsuits,” Furlong said.
Erica Torcia expressed concern about noise levels and the environmental impact the project will have on her elderly parents who live on Flanders Road.
“They feel helpless. They don’t know what to do about this. If this goes through, they will have to move. There’s no way that they’ll be able to stand that,” she said.
She said her seven year old son is autistic and very sensitive to sound — and that he will not be able to tolerate the construction and the humming of the data center.
“I just ask that when you consider this, when you’re voting on it, just know that it could be ruining people’s lives,” she said.
Van Brown said that the town council had not been listening to the citizens of Groton and objected to the “24/7 inevitable noise pollution, light pollution, diesel-generator use air pollution” as well as stress on the electrical grid, the destruction of property values and the lack of tax revenues from the project.
Victor Villagra, a physician, said he was at the meeting to raise the alarm about placing the diesel generators needed by the data center close to a residential area. He said other hazards included toxic cleaning materials contaminating the water supply and the risk of accidental explosions of diesel fuel.
“I cannot possibly dismiss the lure of a $1.5 million annual revenue to the town… but when one considers the cost in the predictable degradation of our air quality water resources, noise levels, and almost certainly loss of health among Groton residents, I cannot conceive of you signing that agreement,” he said.
Joyce Olson Resnikoff, owner of Olde Mistick Village, said she had come to the meeting to represent the Groton Shopping Plaza, which her father built 70 years ago. She said she looked forward to bringing business into Groton but had not expected to hear negative comments about Quinn and the project.
“I’m very proud that I know Tom Quinn and I’m very very proud to have a son, Christopher Regan, working with Tom — that means a great deal to me and I love this area,” she said.
Resnikoff said she had not heard one positive statement and she wanted to correct the misconceptions.
“I don’t know what you have out for Tom Quinn — it’s wrong and I’m sorry I’ve had to sit through this all night to hear it and wait to say these words,” she said.
Later Regan, who works for NE Edge, said he wanted to address “some of the misconceptions and missed facts” concerning the project.
“The town has done the full background check on Mr. Quinn. Let me repeat it. There’s no lawsuits in his background check whatsoever. Repeat it again, no lawsuits against Tom Quinn,” Regan said.
People in the audience could be heard talking, and Regan turned and asked for quiet so that he could speak.
“WIth regards to the host fee, if it’s $1.5 million, that would make us the third largest taxpayer in the town of Groton behind Pfizer and Electric Boat.”
Regan said he grew up in the area and cares about keeping the water clean and uncontaminated. He also said the developers would pay for all infrastructure costs.
The audience continued to talk behind Regan, and Melendez requested that attendees not speak unless they were at the podium.
Regan said the project would provide 2,000 construction jobs and 80 to 116 permanent jobs.
“And that’s jobs that are opportunities for our students in town at Grasso tech,” he said.
He reiterated that there were “false accusations flying around, like it’s factual and it’s not factual.” He repeated there were no lawsuits against Quinn.
“That’s why my mother is very emotional about it, because you know what, you guys are throwing accusations about somebody that’s false,” he said. ‘
Regan concluded by saying that NE Edge would pay for a sound study before the project is built.
Several more residents, some tearful, spoke about their concerns about property values, environmental risks and noise levels.
In a text after the meeting adjourned, councilor Aundré Bumgardner said he was glad there had been a delay in what had been “a rushed process” that allowed for further citizen input and fact finding.
“If Groton has learned anything in the past year, it is the downside to being rushed into shotgun deals with powerful outside interests,” he wrote. “My constituents have concerns which go well beyond only noise problems.”
He said a proposal of this magnitude deserved a full public hearing and he welcomed unfettered public input on this important matter. “The people spoke – and I heard them clearly. I just hope the rest of the council did, too,” he said.
Councilor Bordelon commented that her biggest concern was the town’s process of vetting projects, which she said needed to be slowed down.
“The process is broken. I think we need to come up with a strong town economic development process that includes multiple reads of the document and more hearings where we can respond,” she said.
She said it was time to look at the town’s zoning and reevaluate areas according to how the community has changed.
“There might be some things that are outdated — just because it’s been done that way doesn’t mean it’s acceptable today.”