Seeking solutions to warehouse sprawl in the Garden State

By Michele S. Byers

For decades, suburban sprawl consumed farms, meadows, wetlands and forests. New housing, corporate parks, shopping malls and countless businesses took over New Jersey’s landscapes, often with little regard for water supplies, roads, waste water, schools and other needed infrastructure.

Today there is a new type of sprawl threatening this state we’re in. It’s millions of square feet of warehouses proposed and already built at dozens of locations, especially in southern and northwestern New Jersey.

No one should be surprised. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, online purchasing of goods via e-commerce had been growing steadily for years, with giants like Amazon leading the shift from traditional retail shopping.

Online shopping exploded in early 2020 with the coronavirus lockdowns and today shows no sign of decline. And you cannot get your goods online without trucks and warehouses; in fact, you need lots of them.

The warehouse boom in New Jersey is especially noticeable due to the location and growth of the Port of Newark-Elizabeth. This port receives the nation’s second largest volume of consumer goods shipped from overseas.

Some warehouses are well located on industrial sites with quick access to major highways. But far too many are now proposed on prime farmland and open space, near residential neighborhoods, or along local roads that cannot handle massive truck traffic.

One glaring example is in rural White Township, Warren County, where two gigantic warehouses – one nearly one million square feet and the second nearly two million square feet – are proposed on side-by-side properties off Route 519, a two-lane rural road.

“The second warehouse, if built, would be the seventh largest warehouse in the country and the 12th largest in the world,” said Julia Somers, executive director of the nonprofit N.J. Highlands Council, a regional watchdog group.

“This is on a site 10 miles from Interstate 78 and 10 miles from Interstate 80, on a two-lane country road with no shoulders – and with prime farmland,” Somers said.

Another example, said Somers, is a proposed warehouse of more than 400,000 square feet on a public park that was reclaimed and restored from a former landfill in Phillipsburg.

Phillipsburg is already considered an “overburdened” community with more than its fair share of environmental degradation and this proposal would add to the burden by routing truck traffic through residential neighborhoods.

Under a new environmental justice law, impacts on overburdened communities must be taken into account when siting new facilities with adverse environmental impacts.

In spite of decades of efforts to plan for comprehensive land uses, New Jersey still does not have the ability to address the recent explosion of warehouse proposals. But the issue now has the attention of officials, who are looking for solutions to protect communities and land.

A State Planning Commission panel recently heard testimony on whether warehouse sitings should be subject to regional rather than municipal control.

The New Jersey League of Municipalities held a workshop on “Farmhouses vs. Warehouses” at its recent annual conference in Atlantic City.

In addition, two bills have been proposed by the New Jersey Legislature to address the issue of poorly sited warehouses.

The most recent bill would amend the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law to specify that farmland is not a redevelopment area, or an area in need of redevelopment.

“Retaining productive farmland is critically important to New Jersey, well known as ‘The Garden State,’ as agriculture is one of the state’s largest industries,” notes the bill’s explanatory statement.

An earlier bill would mandate a regional planning approach to warehouse zoning. It would require any town with an application for a “large warehouse” to send a “notice of regional impact” of the project to adjoining municipalities and ask for input.

Both bills are steps in the right direction. Farmland with the best soils for growing food should not be covered and destroyed by warehouses and parking lots.

And communities impacted by warehouse development should have a say; not just the municipalities in which the warehouses would be located. If a regional approach can work in the Pinelands and in the Highlands, why not take a regional approach to planning for warehouses?

In November, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law requiring large new warehouses to be “solar ready.” The law requires warehouses of at least 100,000 square feet built after July 2022 to reserve up to 40% of their roof area for solar arrays. This is a positive step for clean energy, but it does not ensure warehouses will be appropriately located.

The Legislature must act to control warehouse sprawl in the Garden State. New Jersey needs a regional planning and coordinating mechanism to ensure warehouses are sited immediately adjacent to suitable transportation corridors, that they would not cover prime or productive farmland soils, and that they would not generate truck traffic through neighborhoods, especially environmental justice communities already disproportionately affected by pollution.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org