A developer who wants to build almost 3 million square feet of warehouse space on farmland in a predominantly rural township won the latest round in a fight over the project which critics say would clog local roads with traffic and spill contaminated runoff into the adjacent Delaware River.
The Planning Board of White Township in Warren County late Wednesday instructed a special subcommittee to draft an amendment to the town’s master plan that would allow 2.8 million square feet of warehouse space to be built on land owned by the Jaindl Land Company, a Pennsylvania-based developer that also runs turkey farms.
The amendment, if adopted, would also allow for another 2 million square feet of warehouse space to be built on an adjoining parcel that’s separately owned.
Citizens for Sustainable Development, a community group that opposes the Jaindl development, says rural roads would be overwhelmed by extra truck and car traffic from the distribution or warehousing companies that are expected to occupy the space, and would use local two-lane roads to get to and from Interstates 78 and 80, which are each about 10 miles away.
The development would create millions of square feet of impervious surface that would generate runoff and would ruin the rural character of the township of some 4,500 people, the critics say.
The planning board was uncomfortable with an earlier proposed amendment that would have blocked all commercial activity on the land by changing the zoning of the two parcels to “residential” from “low density industrial” or “industrial.” So the board told the subcommittee to take another look at the development’s effects, and that conclusion was delivered to the township meeting attended by about 200 people.
Board’s engineer: County road able to handle traffic
Paul Sterbenz, the board’s engineer who provided technical assistance to the subcommittee, told the meeting that the proposed warehouse would generate less traffic than the adjoining county road is able to handle. He said the so-called high-cube warehouse that’s planned would be highly automated so would require fewer workers, and generate less traffic, than other kinds of storage facilities.
A high-cube warehouse typically has a ceiling of 24 feet or more, and covers at least 200,000 square feet, according to the Institute of Transportation Engineers, a trade group.
“The subcommittee felt that based on traffic, this was something that was workable,” Sterbenz told the meeting, in an elementary school auditorium.
The lands would still be rezoned “residential” but the warehouses would be allowed as a conditional permitted use, Sterbenz said.
But Tom Bodolsky of Citizens for Sustainable Development said the subcommittee’s traffic estimates were far too low and had failed to consider the effects of a tenant like Fedex or UPS in the facility.
“This is the biggest crock of planning that I have seen,” Bodolsky said after the meeting. “It’s far from realistic. They are not going to get a highly automated facility in here. He can’t say that there’s not going to be Fedex or UPS here,” he said, referring to Sterbenz.
Bodolsky denied that the board’s decision means that his group has lost the argument. He said that at coming meetings, he will present information that shows the subcommittee’s traffic estimates are wrong. “All we need is proper facts,” he said.
NJ’s boom in warehousing
White Township is the latest battleground in an industry that is surging in New Jersey thanks to booming e-commerce, and the state’s proximity to ports, highways and rail lines in the heart of the populous Northeast market.
According to the New Jersey Department of Labor, the transportation, logistics and distribution industry employed almost 400,000 people, or 11.6% of the private-sector work force, in 2017 — much higher than the 8.9% of private-sector workers nationally at that time.
Anthony Sposaro, an attorney for Jaindl, welcomed the board’s decision to scrap the earlier amendment and begin consideration of the subcommittee’s new proposal, which will now be drafted into the master plan and then discussed at a public hearing, expected in about five weeks’ time.
Although Jaindl initially proposed a massive development of more than 6 million square feet — which would have been one of biggest developments of its kind in the country — it is now content to work with less than half that amount, if finally adopted by the township, Sposaro said.
“It appears, based upon the numbers thrown out in terms of total buildout, impervious cover, land devoted to agricultural use, that we can work within those parameters,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we can move forward with a collaborative effort to design a project here that the town is happy with.”
The company recently scaled back its original plan to not more than 3 million square feet and is now willing to comply with a modest further reduction, Sposaro said. “If we take a haircut of 200,000, it’s something I think we can live with.”
First phase: 800,000 square feet
Plans for the development’s first phase, an 800,000-square-foot warehouse, are due for consideration by the planning board on Jan. 14. If approved, the entire development will probably consist of two buildings, Sposaro said.
Of the approximately 500-acre site, at least half would be left as open space or farmland and a maximum of 125 acres, or a quarter of the total, would become impervious surface, Sterbenz said, citing details in a handout given to board members on Wednesday.
But critics were not buying the assurances from the company or the board.
Theresa Chapman, president of the citizens group, said it’s “ludicrous” to expect traffic flows on Route 519 to be within the road’s current official capacity if the warehouse complex is built. She said the anticipated traffic would create a safety hazard for the homes and schools along the route — where many homeowners have set up yard signs opposing the project.
And she accused the planning board of caving in to the developer’s demands. “The number-one priority of any governing body should be public health, safety, and general welfare,” she said. “We do not believe that the planning board is taking that into consideration. The planning board is presenting to the public an appearance of catering to a developer during their master plan review. Since when is a town planned around a single developer?”
If the additional 2 million square feet of warehouse space immediately to the north of the Jaindl parcel is developed, as proposed by the subcommittee, it further will harm the township’s quality of life, Chapman said.
She said six surrounding townships have adopted resolutions opposing the development, and almost 2,400 White Township residents have signed a petition in opposition.
Julia Somers, executive director of the Highlands Coalition, an environmental nonprofit, called the warehouse plan a “monstrosity,” and pledged to fight the planning board on the issue.
“It’s a terrible use of this site,” she said. “This is agricultural land of the highest order. New Jersey has an ever-diminishing amount of high-quality agricultural land.”