‘Warehouse sprawl’ has some NJ towns considering acting together on zoning

Major projects planned for Warren County prompt discussions on harmonizing land-use rules
Credit: Warren County
The Warren County Site Assessment Draft Report suggests significant changes would have to be made to many roads to accommodate increased warehouse traffic. In this example, it noted the likely addition of signals and widening of an intersection.

Towns in Warren County are taking a fresh look at how to curb heavy truck traffic on rural roads after a county study found that the development of proposed warehouses at 15 sites would worsen congestion.

Some community leaders are supporting the idea of a coordinated zoning change to make it harder to build major warehouse developments not only in individual towns but throughout the county. Those advocates say any action by individual towns to rezone land to make it less attractive to warehouse developers won’t solve the problem unless local communities act together.

Although such cooperation on land-use policy is far from being a reality, its advocates say it’s necessary to preserve a rural way of life, and to resist the encroachment of suburbia, as the county’s available land and its strategic location between Interstates 78 and 80 make it an attractive destination for developers in the burgeoning logistics industry.

“I didn’t move here to be locked in traffic,” said Tom Bodolsky, a spokesman for Citizens for Sustainable Development, a community group that opposes a plan to build almost 3 million square feet of warehousing in White Township, one of the municipalities named in the Warren County study. “I moved here for the rural quality of life, and I would say that, overwhelmingly, the people of Warren County share my sentiment.”

Bodolsky warned that the surge in traffic that would come with the proposed development would badly hurt the community.

Property values, quality of life

“Property values are going to be impacted and our quality of life is going to be impacted unless the towns all get together and say, ‘We need to rethink our zoning.’ You just can’t do something on a town-by-town basis and close your eyes to the impact on your neighbors,” he said.

The White Township plan, plus proposals for several other warehouses in nearby towns, prompted the county study that found some rural roads would be clogged with truck and car traffic if the developments went ahead.

Other projects cited by the study include one in Phillipsburg that is under construction and others proposed for Lopatcong, Alpha and Pohatcong townships, said David Bech, Warren County’s director of planning.

Credit: Jon Hurdle
Signs protesting a warehouse development in Warren County

The study, funded by the state-run Highlands Council, and released in September, was conducted because of increased interest in warehouse development and to assess the impact on the county of warehousing potentially covering 45 million square feet on 4,000 acres of land across 11 towns. It looked at warehouses that are under construction, proposed, or that could be developed under current zoning.

“Roadway levels of service would deteriorate to unacceptable conditions at most analyzed intersection locations and mainline segments of CR 519, as well as other key intersections throughout the county,” the study concluded.

Adding lanes to rural roads

To cope with a full buildout on the 15 sites, Route 519, now a two-lane county road, would have to be widened to two lanes in each direction; improvements such as turn lanes would be needed at many intersections, and the full impact of extra traffic could be lessened by measures such as staggering employee work hours or shifting deliveries to off-peak hours, the study found.

Although the law allows municipalities to control land use within their jurisdictions, an individual approach may not be an appropriate response to development on the scale of the possible warehouse sites identified by the study, said James Kern III, a Warren County freeholder.

“While New Jersey law allows municipalities to have the say when it comes to zoning, this study hopefully will allow towns to see beyond their own borders,” Kern said in a statement.

The idea of collaboration on zoning was raised at a recent county meeting for towns to comment on the study.

Attendees included Mayor Adele Starrs of Knowlton Township. While Knowlton was not named in the study, it would be affected by the increased traffic, she said.

“This is a natural impetus for towns to start talking to each other to help that along the way,” she said. Since there is currently no legal authority for coordination of zoning, and local government in New Jersey is based on home rule, any cooperation would have to be voluntary but it could be in towns’ interests if it allowed a wider restriction on warehouse development, Starrs said.

The impact of passing trucks

Tim McDonough, mayor of nearby Hope Township, said the new focus on warehouse development has heightened long-standing concern about truck traffic going through the town center. In his own historic house, vibration from passing trucks pushes dust out from between brick and stone, he said.

Hope was not one of those covered in the study, but McDonough said he would welcome any municipal cooperation on zoning, although he said he has no right to ask neighboring towns to restrict their own development.

Still, he predicted that the consequences for his own town would be severe if the proposed warehouses are built in White Township.

“If those warehouses go in — even half of what they’re saying — and they don’t do anything to change the traffic pattern, it will destroy Hope Township,” he said. “This warehousing has, quite frankly, raised this issue on cooperating with zoning.”

Any coordination of zoning in Warren County could open a new front in controlling sprawl in New Jersey, said Pete Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates for “smart growth.” While the state has mostly succeeded in controlling residential sprawl, warehouses represent a new threat to New Jersey’s scarce land resources, and the cooperative adoption of more restrictive zoning might be a way of countering that, he said.

‘Very worrisome’

“This is the first time you are seeing warehouse sprawl,” he said. “It’s a new phenomenon, and it’s very worrisome.

“You are starting to see these mega-warehouses that are really large and are starting to see a lot of truck traffic coming through them. So, limiting the places where those large warehouses can be sited, can be one approach,” Kasabach said.

Warehouse developers should have incentives to build in places such as highway interchanges, where it makes sense, and disincentives such as cooperative zoning to build where their traffic would damage rural communities, Kasabach said.

Warren County appears to be a test case on the issue because it has proximity to two major highways that connect to Atlantic coast ports, and has relatively good availability of land, Kasabach said.

While individual towns have the power to change their zoning at any time, doing so in concert would be a more effective response to the warehouse issue. “Each individual town can change their zoning right now,” he said. “But coordination is just a smart move because they all are facing the same problem.”