Nanaimo residents concerned about data centre proposed on East Wellington Road

As council moves to rezone two lots on East Wellington Road as high tech industrial, some residents worry about the future draw on local resources.
Townsite Planning submitted a conceptual site plan for East Wellington Road to show how a data centre could be developed. A drawing shows some tree canopy and a warehouse building.
Townsite Planning submitted a conceptual site plan to show how a data centre could be developed on East Wellington Road. Drawing from Townsite Planning submitted to the City of Nanaimo

On Oct. 24, city council moved one step closer to rezoning two lots on East Wellington Road to high tech industrial in order to facilitate the construction of a data centre. 

But some residents in the East Wellington area say the data centre, if completed, would require significant amounts of water, hydro infrastructure and noise to operate. 

For Meg Rintoul and around a dozen other residents who live near the proposed site, the future water and energy needs of the neighbourhood and city as a whole need to be more thoroughly considered. 

Meanwhile, the majority of outgoing council members who approved the rezoning believe the proposal is aligned with the city’s official community plan.

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What is a data centre?

The warehouse-style buildings house computer systems and storage systems used for various IT operations. The rapid data exchange infrastructure can require a significant amount of power and backup diesel generators to run and access to city water to help cool the machines. 

With growing awareness of these environmental impacts, Canada is considered an attractive place to meet high demands for data centres because of its cooler climate and renewable energy. Currently, data centres use about one per cent of the total electricity used in Canada each year, according to Natural Resources Canada, with about half of that energy powering computer servers and about 40 per cent used to cool the machines. 

While Canada promotes the use of Energy Star-certified data centre equipment to lower the environmental impacts, residents in the East Wellington area are concerned there’s little regulation specific to this industry currently in place.

Rezoning for the area came at the request of the applicant, Townsite Planning, which represents a company listed as 2779022 Ontario Inc. Because current zoning bylaws don’t address data centres specifically, the rezoning application included a site-specific use for this purpose.

The applicant provided conceptual drawings of the site plan to city officials to support the decision. 

The total area of the site being rezoned is 2.32 hectares and would be treated similar to a warehouse with light industrial zoning, which caps building height at 14 meters and lot coverage at 50 per cent. Twenty per cent of the tree canopy would be maintained. Future development could increase the lot coverage to 65 per cent footprint if demand continued to grow.

While residents expressed concerns about noise pollution, a staff report shared with council in August states that “no significant off-site noise or lighting impacts are anticipated with the indoor data centre use” adding that an acoustic study would be required as a condition for rezoning, before the development permit is issued.

An aerial photo shows the two lots on East Wellington Road up for rezoning, shown in red outline.
An aerial photo shows the two lots on East Wellington Road considered for rezoning to high tech industrial. Photo from the City of Nanaimo staff report

What was council voting on?

On Oct. 24, council passed third reading to officially rezone 2086 and 2090 East Wellington Road from rural resource to high tech industrial, as requested by the company 2779022 Ontario Inc. This was council’s last meeting before the newly elected council takes over on Nov. 7.

Outgoing councillor Bonner says the merits of a data centre weren’t factored into the recent council decision. “Because we’re looking at the land use, whether or not we think the business plan is viable doesn’t weigh in our decision,” he told The Discourse in a phone interview.

A review of the building design for the lots would take place at the development permit stage. What happens with the development project going forward is outside of council’s control, says Bonner. Zoning only outlines what types of activities can take place there. 

“Industry changes, that might not be the project they actually come to us with when it’s time to break ground. We don’t know, we don’t factor in if the business asking for this goes bankrupt in the future. That happens. We don’t make our decision based on the merit of the proponent.”

Roughly 25 citizens attended the recent meeting, and the use of the term “light industrial” by council members led to concerns that council wasn’t really weighing the differences between “light industrial” and “high tech industrial” zonings.

“It says this area is earmarked for light industry in the city plan, I get that,” Rintoul explains, referring to the city’s official community plan approved earlier this year. “But that comes with regulations for pollution, for sound, for expenses. High tech industrial doesn’t have that.”

Current zoning bylaws define light industrial as “uses which are industrial in nature but do not result in excessive noise, waste or noxious fumes” and high tech industrial as “clean, high-tech industrial uses and supporting commercial uses.”

Rintoul says the continued reference that the area in question has “always been industrial,” as Coun. Erin Hemmens said, seemed to contradict the very bylaw being voted on, which was to amend the zoning from rural resource to high tech industrial. 

When asked, Coun. Don Bonner and Coun. Erin Hemmings explained it’s a case of future planning meeting current reality.

“We delegated that area as a potential for industrial zoning in the official city plan,” Bonner explains. “We’re not saying it’s currently an industrial area. We’re saying that’s the future for the city in that area.”

And the difference between light industrial and high tech industrial?

“Basically, you have light industrial (contractor offices, cabinetry work, machine shops, management services)” Bonner says. “You have heavy industrial; factories like Harmac and the steel manufacturing plant just a little bit farther down the road. Then you have high tech industrial, which is typically these types of warehousing or industry that ordinarily, you wouldn’t have in the commercial area.”

The developer has already proposed to council ways it would hold itself accountable to limit environmental impact, including noise monitoring. 

Residents concerned about the proposed Nanaimo data centre’s water use

While Rintoul acknowledges that more conspiracy theory-style concerns, including the use of 5G wireless technology and potential spying from China, have been raised by some, the root concern for most are the resources needed for such a project.

“I don’t want to get, you know, totally focused on not-in-my-backyard. I just want people to be really concerned that this is not sustainable development. That the council’s making decisions, which, given climate change could be catastrophic and affect everyone,” says Rintoul.

A key point of concern for citizens opposed to the project? The use of water to cool the larger computer banks, says Rintoul.

“Our big concern is the whole water usage. I think you’ll find once you get into this, that it’s very hard to pin down the actual water usage of these facilities.”

Recent summer droughts led the province to declare Drought Level 4 conditions (in a range of 0 to 5) for Central Vancouver Island, and Nanaimo residents were asked to implement Stage 2 watering restrictions until Oct. 31. 

But Bonner believes the water usage from tech industries would remain at a manageable level. 

“They wouldn’t necessarily be using any more water than an area of a similar size with a couple of apartment buildings on it would be used. And the city is not hurting for water by any way, shape or form. So we could quite easily accommodate this one without any problems that I would see. Other than getting a pipe there, but they would be responsible for that.”

That claim that the city isn’t lacking in water seemingly wasn’t shared by Coun. Ben Geselbracht, who voted against the project.

“I don’t think there’s been enough information presented on the water usage,” Geselbracht said during the meeting. “And I don’t think I can make a decision on this particular rezoning and this permitted use for a data centre. What’s the impact on our water? Especially the droughts we’re experiencing.” 

What’s next for the proposed Nanaimo data centre?

The rezoning passed third reading near-unanimously, with one dissenting vote from Geselbracht. If the rezoning is finalized as expected, the numbered company can go ahead and submit a development permit application, which council would vote on separately. 

While Rintoul isn’t holding her breath that the vote will flip, she does think some new faces will be adding their vote with Geselbracht.

“Hilary Eastmure, she was there at the meeting. She’s voiced concerns she shares with us about the project. And I think Paul Manly would feel similarly.”

Residents now are exploring future options in making their concerns for a potential data centre known.

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