Surprise withdrawal of warehouse plan fuels hopes of ‘sprawl’ opponents

Advocate urges towns to rethink zoning for where projects can be built
Credit: (Edmund DelSol from Pixabay)
File photo: A warehouse

A developer unexpectedly withdrew an application to build a warehouse on farmland at Upper Freehold in Monmouth County, prompting celebrations by residents who opposed the project, and fanning the hopes of other communities that they too can resist a current surge in warehouse “sprawl” across New Jersey.

NP Freehold Industrial LLC, a unit of NorthPoint Development of Missouri, wanted to build a 560,000-square-foot warehouse on 117 acres of undeveloped land in a project that critics said would have destroyed the rural character of the township and choked local roads with truck traffic.

The company was due to go before the Upper Freehold Township Zoning Board Monday to argue for a variance to zoning law that would have allowed it to build the warehouse, but surprised opponents by unilaterally canceling its application on Friday.

“Please be advised that NP Freehold Industrial LLC hereby requests that the above referenced application be immediately withdrawn, without prejudice,” the company’s lawyers said in a letter to the board. It did not give a reason for the withdrawal, and the company did not respond to a request from NJ Spotlight News for comment.

Micah Rasmussen, a local resident and Rider University professor who led the No Warehouse on 524 Coalition — named after the road where the warehouse would have been built — speculated that the company decided to drop the project because it would have faced questions at Monday’s meeting that it would be unable to answer.

Difficult questions

He asked how they could have described the future use of the warehouse when they could not know who would occupy it because it would be built speculatively.

The zoning board was “pretty incredulous” when the company said in March that it wanted to build the warehouse without first finding a tenant, and said it would come back at this month’s meeting with projections for the kinds of uses the building might have, but then abruptly withdrew, Rasmussen said.

“My strongest guess is that as they prepared for tonight’s hearing, they realized that there were questions that they were just not going to be able to satisfactorily answer,” he said Monday.

The surprise withdrawal comes amid a surge in warehouse construction and applications across the state as developers respond to booming e-commerce and a consequent explosion in demand for space to store an avalanche of goods ordered online. The resulting warehouse “sprawl” has replaced its residential equivalent as a new threat to New Jersey’s dwindling open space, and has spawned local resistance groups in many places.

‘Thrilled’ by the withdrawal

Susan Matson, co-founder of The Allentown Sustainability Coalition, a citizens group that is fighting another warehouse plan in nearby Robbinsville, said she was “thrilled” by the withdrawal of the Upper Freehold project but argued that her campaign has less hope of succeeding because it doesn’t have municipal government or a large group of citizens on its side.

“In our case, the values of tiny, historic Allentown and sensitive nearby habitat are being trammeled by Robbinsville, a presiding town in another county and with a different value set based in their own self-interest,” she said.

The Robbinsville plan would build two warehouses totaling about 500,000 square feet on a partially developed corporate park that attracts many migratory birds, the opponents say. The township already hosts some 10 million square feet of warehouse space.

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That project was due to be considered by the local zoning board on Tuesday night, and critics expected the panel to give its final approval. But on Friday the meeting was canceled without explanation. “Something odd is going on,” Matson said.

Both cases highlight the need for a change in zoning and for guidance from state and county authorities on how to ensure that warehouses are built in places that make sense logistically, and not where they eat up open space, said Pete Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates for “smart growth.”

“Demand for this kind of space is clearly up, and developers aren’t really getting any guidance as to where they should be trying to put these places,” he said. “They are just combing the countryside looking for places that have zoning.”

The pressure from developers could be an opportunity for towns to take a fresh look at their master plans to determine where they don’t want warehouses, but also where they would be appropriate, he said.

Time to rethink zoning rules?

“It’s time for towns to look at their plans and say ‘there are places where we don’t want these big warehouses, and we’re going to have to change our zoning to make sure we don’t get them. And simultaneously, we have a bunch of redevelopment sites in our town, and this might be the best use for them,’” Kasabach said.

In Upper Freehold, Rasmussen attributed the developer’s withdrawal in part to the large number of residents who turned out to zoning board meetings to resist the project, and were a clear signal to officials of the strength of local feeling. He said numbers grew from about 150 in January to more than 400 in March and were expected to rise further at this month’s meeting.

He also credited a social media campaign that enabled organizers to easily stay in touch with members who were otherwise isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said people believed that the warehouse full of goods would attract crime in a township that has no police force; that there is no public sewer system, and that trucks are banned from Route 524 where the warehouse would have been built.

“You really couldn’t have picked a worse spot or a more intensive use,” he said. “It is bucolic, it is rural, it is anything but industrialized.”

Municipalities afraid of being sued

And he said the campaign offered township officials solid legal reasons for denying the application, an action that municipalities are often loath to take because they fear being sued on the grounds that a project application is consistent with zoning.

“If there’s anything that broke in our favor here, it’s that the presumption in the law is not to change zoning by variance, and that’s what this would have done. We believe we would have had the law on our side, and we believe that the zoning board members would have had ample reasons to defensibly deny the application,” Rasmussen said.

Despite the unexpected win, opponents recognize that the landowners — a family that has farmed the land since 1960 — could still sell to another developer who could submit their own warehouse plan. For that reason, the campaign is trying to get the township, the county and a land trust to make an “aggressive” offer for the land — to keep it as open space, hopefully for farming.

It’s unclear whether the combination of strong legal argument and effective organizing will be enough to finally overcome the immense pressure for warehouse development in one corner of New Jersey, but Rasmussen argued that the two factors represent communities’ best chance of turning the big-box tide.

“I’m not telling you it’s a slam-dunk,” he said. “I’m saying it’s the best chance you’ve got.”

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