In a 2-1 vote, the Kent County Commissioners passed a zoning text amendment Tuesday to entice data centers to Kent County that would add jobs and fill tenant space in districts zoned Industrial, Commercial, Employment Center and Village.
A last minute revision passed striking agriculturally-zoned land as a permitted use for farms with 200 acres or more.
Commissioners Ron Fithian and Bob Jacob voted in favor, and Commissioner President Tom Mason voted against the measure.
Mason acknowledged that there may be enough land in the four districts, but said allowing farmers to benefit from data centers is a good way to support agriculture.
He said he spoke with many farmers who wanted agricultural land included as a permitted use for data centers.
Mason said it was possible to make a “small percentage” of agricultural land in Kent a permitted use for data centers. He noted that 134,000 acres of farmland in Kent is not currently in preservation or owned by the state — and that permitting data center use on just one half of one percent of the acreage would use just a little over 600 acres.
Commissioner Bob Jacob said anchoring data centers in Kent would help with capital projects that currently have no funding sources.
“Down the road we have huge capital projects that we have no way of funding,” Jacob said. “We need to diversify our revenue.”
Jacob said he wanted to be able to bring agricultural land back as a permitted use for data centers if it turned out the existing zoning districts didn’t satisfy the demand.
“I’m pretty sure we have enough land set aside leaving agriculture out,” Jacob said. “We should be covered, but what if we aren’t?”
“Those four districts are certainly ample,” Fithian responded. “No one is beating on our door yet” to build a data center.
Fithian said the county was in the midst of a rezoning effort that would take about a year and a half. He said that would be the time to assess whether the existing four districts met the needs of data centers — and that would be the time to consider agricultural land as a permitted use if the existing four zoning districts fell short.
“I think these four districts would carry us through and agricultural land was the only real objection I heard during the public hearing,” he said. “I think this is a good compromise to allow us to get started in marketing a data center or two and see where we go from there.”
The use of farmland for data centers faced opposition from the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance and the Kent County Planning Commission for being incompatible with the county’s comprehensive plan.
Fithian said allowing the use of farmland could also undermine the other four zoning districts that have utility and water access already in place.
“They’re sitting on this hoping we’re going to get some businesses to take hold in Kent County,” he said.
In a brief call on Wednesday, Fithian reiterated that the four districts approved in the text amendment would be ample for “a fair amount of time” should a wave of data centers find Kent County an attractive place to anchor.
Fithian said that it was better to have data centers in the priority funding areas where water and sewer and Internet were easily accessible.
The zoning text amendment follows a successful state bill that was authored in Kent County and brought before the Maryland General Assembly by Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey in the 2020 session — to make Maryland more competitive with surrounding states that have successfully offered tax incentives to attract data center business.
The bill successfully passed the Assembly just before 2020 session was cut short by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The new law exempts data centers from Maryland’s personal property and sales and use tax, provided they invest $5 million within three years of filing for the exemption — and hire at least five personnel earning 1.5 times the state’s minimum wage.
The investment requirement drops to $2 million in the Tier I counties of Allegany, Baltimore City Caroline, Dorchester, Garrett, Kent, Somerset, Washington, Wicomico, and Worcester – because these counties have either an unemployment rate that exceeds 150 percent of the state average, their median household income is 75 percent of State’s average median household income, or the unemployment exceeds the average rate of unemployment for the State by at least 2 percentage points.
Update: When we first ran this story the Kent Pilot reported that Tier 1 counties require a lesser investment of $2 million, compared to $5 million for the rest of the counties, to receive the tax exemption because Tier 1 counties have unemployment rates that exceed 150 percent of the state average. This was only partially correct because of other criteria that also classify a county as Tier 1. Kent specifically classifies as a Tier 1 because of median household income.