Warehouse sprawl shows need for regional approach to planning, advocates say

But NJ’s home-rule culture a major hurdle. Local officials say land decisions theirs to make
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Is it time for New Jersey’s municipalities to loosen their grip on deciding whether warehouses can be built within their boundaries?

A current surge in warehouse construction is raising concern among planners and environmentalists that scarce open space is being eaten up by giant warehouses that generate truck traffic on rural roads, increase contaminated stormwater runoff from more paved surfaces, and industrialize the state’s few remaining rural enclaves.

Municipalities, which have authority over land use, are attracted to the local taxes and jobs that come with new warehouses and many approve the plans over the objections of local critics. But advocates argue that the trend raises wider issues that should also be addressed by county or statewide authorities, particularly given the industry’s economic importance — as shown by the fact that Amazon is now New Jersey’s largest private employer, with some 40,000 workers.

“Leaving the fate of one of New Jersey’s most important industries, and the decisions about where its need for land is accommodated, solely in the hands of our myriad local governments and their fiscal self-interest is no guarantee of a regionally-optimal solution,” wrote Tim Evans, director of research for the nonprofit New Jersey Future, in a new paper titled “Warehouse Sprawl: Plan Now or Suffer the Consequences.”

Keeping farmland for farming

He argued that a “regional perspective” is needed to ensure that increasing demand for the storage of imported goods does not result in the development of land that is better used for farming or recreation, and that the most suitable land for warehousing — such as that near the ports of Newark, Elizabeth and Bayonne — does not get used for another purpose that could easily be done elsewhere.

Adding regional authorities to the decision-making process over warehouse siting might involve county or state government, or regional planners like the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, in addition to local planning boards, so that all angles are covered, Evans said.

“Even if you are leaving the final call up to the local government, you should allow for projects in the warehousing business to have input from higher levels of government,” he said, in an interview.

But Evans acknowledged that any attempt to dilute the power of local government over land-use planning would prompt strong pushback from towns that don’t want any cut in their ability to increase tax revenue.

“It’s a home-rule state, and local governments have the final say,” he said. “It’s hard to reel that power back once you’ve handed it to the local governments; you are going to meet a lot of political resistance if you say you need to take some of it back.”

Mike Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, argued that land-use decisions are best left in local hands, and that the official State Plan — a document that recommends where and how the state should grow — has not been widely accepted since it was last issued in 2001.

Defending ‘the local touch’

“We have yet to see a demonstration that placing decision-making authority further apart from the residents of a particular community results in better outcomes,” Cerra said. “The State Plan has never been bought into by the respective state agencies, and has led to disjointed outcomes. Planning decisions impact the residents of the community directly, and good planning is therefore reliant upon the local touch.”

Municipalities are not required to conform to the State Plan, which is a guidance document, said Donna Rendeiro, executive director of the state’s Office of Planning Advocacy. She said final land-use decisions are made locally but state or regional authorities can help towns with information or technical assistance, in cases that have a wider impact.

“Regional planning for issues that have statewide impact can provide a blueprint for maximizing economic opportunity while ensuring environmental and infrastructure protection,” she said in a statement.

Regional coordination of warehouse development “would make a lot of sense,” said John Hasse, a Rowan University professor who monitors land-use patterns. It’s unclear what policy tools might enable that to happen, but regional management of impervious surface expansion might allow coordination while retaining local authority over the issue, he said.

Jim Gilbert, a former chairman of the New Jersey State Planning Commission, urged Gov. Phil Murphy, who appoints the panel’s chairman and executive director, to empower the commission to require counties to coordinate planning.

Credit: Jon Hurdle
Warren County, where a developer wants to build 2.8 million square feet of warehouse space on farmland

He acknowledged that such a change would reduce municipalities’ power over land-use decisions, but argued that it would reduce the threat of warehouse development on greenfield sites, as proposed in White Township, Warren County, where a developer wants to build 2.8 million square feet of warehouse space on farmland, a project that Gilbert said would “destroy” the county.

“There are responsible developers who redevelop existing industrial sites, and others who want to build in the middle of a cornfield,” he said.

What’s happening in Warren County

In a step toward a regional approach, some towns in Warren County have proposed coordinating local zoning to control a potential explosion in warehouse development on greenfield sites in the mostly rural area. Critics there fear that new warehousing will spill over from neighboring Lehigh County, Pennsylvania where available land is dwindling as logistics centers have sprung up in recent years.

A Warren County study released in September on the impacts of possible warehouse projects found that, if built, they would result in 45 million square feet of warehouses on 4,000 acres across 11 towns. The extra traffic generated would result in “unacceptable” conditions on local roads, according to the report.

James Kern, director of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, said he is trying to get towns to respond jointly to the pressure for new warehouses. He urged municipalities not to be tempted by the prospect of higher tax revenues, arguing that any extra income would be overwhelmed by the need for more and bigger roads and other infrastructure if all the proposed warehouses were built.

“If we’re talking a full buildout of these sites, our infrastructure would not be able to handle it,” Kern said. “For a municipality to build because of what they perceive to be a tax ratable, it’s flawed logic.”

Many towns changed their zoning to light industrial to protect themselves from residential sprawl and “big-box” retail in the early 2000s and they are now finding that the light-industrial parcels are being targeted by warehouse developers, he said.

Towns often don’t find out about warehouse projects until after a plan has been submitted — when it is more difficult for the town to deny permission, based on its zoning at the time of the application. But better communication between municipalities would give them a better chance of changing their zoning in anticipation of future applications, Kern said.

Razing woodland in Ocean County?

In the latest local approval of a warehouse project in early March, officials in Jackson Township, Ocean County, approved the construction of about 1 million square feet of warehouse as part of Adventure Crossing, a new mixed-use retail, residential and sports complex. The warehouse component will require clearing 72 acres of woodland and will generate truck traffic on the edge of a residential area as well as creating runoff into the Barnegat Bay watershed, critics say.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, predicted the new phase of the project will worsen local traffic congestion and pollute nearby wetlands.

Despite concerns about warehouse “sprawl,” most of the new development so far has been on previously used sites, said Evans of New Jersey Future.

But site reuse can’t continue indefinitely, and warehouses have crept southward along the New Jersey Turnpike over the last 20 years as land becomes harder to find, especially near the ports where many goods enter the country, he said.

Short of integrating state or regional authorities into the local planning process, Evans urged officials to encourage further reuse of industrial sites; to promote “high-cube” warehouses that build up instead of out, and to enable more goods to be moved by rail, a more energy-efficient mode than trucks.

But regional planning would help the state avoid the worst impacts of the warehouse boom which is underpinned by e-commerce and fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A regional perspective would help make sure that port-oriented storage and distribution functions “aren’t consuming outlying lands that are better used for farming, recreation, or some other non-industrial use,” Evans’s report said.