By Michele S. Byers
New Jersey has long been known as the Garden State and keeping this title in the face of sprawl development is tough. Now the COVID-19 pandemic has indirectly added a new threat to this state we’re in’s nickname.
Even before COVID-19, brick and mortar malls and shopping centers were in decline. But consumers in lockdown from the coronavirus found themselves shopping online for almost every item under the sun, available for home delivery.
With this huge surge in e-commerce came the need for more warehouses and fulfillment centers to store, sort and distribute goods – and a lot more trucks to make deliveries.
New Jersey is now in the midst of a warehouse construction tidal wave.
The Port of New Jersey and New York is the nation’s second busiest. Giant container ships arrive regularly in Newark, Elizabeth and Bayonne, laden with goods to supply much of the East Coast. Everything in those shipping containers is going someplace.
A spate of poorly sited warehouses are being proposed on productive farmland, environmentally sensitive areas and sites near residential neighborhoods. Aside from the loss of farmland and natural areas, the warehouses generate noise, traffic and air pollution from trucks.
Here are just a few examples of warehouse projects around the state:
• Upper Freehold Township, Monmouth County – A community group called the No Warehouse on 524 Coalition is opposing a plan to build a 566,840-square-foot warehouse on 118 acres of farmland along Route 524 — a project that would require a change in zoning.
(Editor’s note: The applicant that proposed the warehouse in Upper Freehold Township withdrew the application from municipal consideration on April 16).
• Jackson, Ocean County – Several environmental groups came out against a proposal to build warehouses as part of the Adventure Crossing USA mixed use development project on Route 537. The warehouse component would require clearing 72 acres of forest; opponents say it will generate truck traffic on the edge of a residential area and increase runoff into the Barnegat Bay watershed.
• Robbinsville, Mercer County – Birders are objecting to a proposal to build two warehouses on a 90-acre property that attracts migratory birds, possibly including threatened and endangered species. The land, partly developed for offices, includes woods, fields and wetlands. If threatened and endangered birds are documented, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection could potentially halt the project.
• Hamilton Township, Mercer County – Eleven projects totaling more than 2.6 million square feet of warehouse space have already been approved, built or are under construction; and another three projects totaling 875,000 square feet are pending before the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Adjustment. A group called Stop Hamilton Township Overdevelopment is circulating an online petition asking local officials to keep the township from becoming a “warehouse hub.”
• White Township, Warren County – Fearing the impacts of proposals for millions of square feet of warehouses, the township wants to significantly reduce the amount of development permitted in industrial zones. A proposed zoning amendment would cut maximum lot coverage from 35% to 5%. A group called Citizens for Sustainable Development, backed by the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, is rallying public support for limiting new warehouses.
• Roxbury Township, Morris County – The Township Committee proposes to limit the size of warehouses in industrial districts, saying the move is necessary “to avoid excessive truck traffic on local roads and adverse effects on existing stressed intersections as well as on residential neighborhoods and the residential character of the township.”
• Oldmans Township, Salem County – A 366-acre project, with 3.9 million square feet of warehouse space in seven buildings, has been proposed on farmland off Interstate 295. A zoning change would be required from the township.
Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, said many municipalities zoned land for “light industrial” uses decades ago to avoid residential development that could add more children to public school systems and increase affordable housing obligations. As a result, many of the recent warehouse proposals conform with local zoning standards and towns are struggling to respond.
One solution to controlling warehouse sprawl may lie in adopting a regional approach and plan to identify appropriate locations for the structures. And equally important would be a method to quantify the need for warehouse space so New Jersey does not end up with multiple empty and abandoned warehouses a few years from now.
Tim Evans, director of research for the nonprofit New Jersey Future, argued in a recent paper, “Warehouse Sprawl: Plan Now or Suffer the Consequences,” that decisions over warehouse siting should not be left solely in the hands of municipal governments.
“A regional perspective is needed,” Evans wrote, “to make sure port-oriented storage and distribution functions are not consuming outlying lands that are better used for farming, recreation, or some other non-industrial use, and that redevelopment opportunities near the port that are ideal for warehousing are not instead allocated to some other land use that lacks the same location constraints.”
Somers “absolutely” agrees with the regional approach, both in the Highlands and elsewhere in the state.
A regional approach would allow officials to consider larger impacts: Can existing roads handle the traffic? Would noise, traffic and air pollution affect residential neighborhoods? Can warehouse development be steered away from the most important lands, like prime farmland and forests?
Somers pointed out that in response to numerous warehouse proposals, Warren County officials conducted a traffic study last fall on the cumulative impact.
“If all were built, the impact would be dramatic,” she said. Route 519, currently a two-lane county road, “would have to become a four-lane highway.”
Regional land use planning works well in New Jersey, with two successful examples in the Pinelands and Highlands.
And New Jersey has a statewide land use plan that could address this issue. The State Plan has been largely dormant since its adoption in 2001, but should be revived and updated to address warehouse sprawl and other current challenges like solar facility siting and climate change.
To learn more about warehouse sprawl, visit the New Jersey Future website at https://www.njfuture.org/2021/03/15/warehouse-sprawl-plan-now-or-suffer-the-consequences/
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org