Birders battle warehouse plan at major highway intersection

The spot is crucial for migrating birds and its wetlands, activists say. It’s also attractive to developers because it sits near the New Jersey Turnpike
Credit: (Susan Matson)
A bald eagle named Archie flies over a pond at Mercer Corporate Park.

Migrating birds may be driven away by new warehouses near the intersection of the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 195 if plans to develop a Mercer County site go ahead.

Mercer Corporate Park, a 90-acre tract at Robbinsville that attracts endangered and threatened species of birds, especially during spring and fall migrations, would become the site of two warehouses totaling about 500,000 square feet, plus about 460 car or truck spaces and 45 acres of paved surface, under a plan that is nearing approval by the local township.

The project by Johnson Development Associates was approved for a zoning variance by the Robbinsville Zoning Board of Adjustment in February and awaits what is expected to be a final vote by that panel on April 20.

The township says the warehouses would boost its local tax revenue by $1.15 million a year if they are built. But conservationists, led by The Alliance for Sustainable Communities: Mercer-Monmouth, say the project would choke the area with truck traffic and damage a site that is an important magnet for migratory birds along a branch of the East Coast flyway.

What attracts the birds

The site has been partially developed for offices but much of it remains in wetlands, fields and woods that attract the birds, said Susan Matson, co-chair of the conservation group. It lures birds and developers alike because of its importance on both the migratory route and the highway network.

The fight is the latest over a statewide surge in warehouse development spurred by the boom in e-commerce and the consequent scramble by logistics companies to build distribution hubs next to major highways where they can ship products to consumers as fast as possible.

Other proposals include a 2.8 million-square-foot warehouse on farmland in White Township, Warren County, and a 1 million-square-foot warehouse on a wooded area that’s part of the mixed-use Adventure Crossing project in Jackson Township, Ocean County.

Many projects are opposed on the grounds that they would jam local roads with trucks and cars and eat into the state’s dwindling open space, offsetting a recent slowdown in residential sprawl in response to increased demand for urban living.

At Robbinsville, conservationists say the warehouses would hurt a site that has become a “hot spot” for birders because of the large number of unusual birds that can be seen there, especially during migration.

Critical migratory stopover

“This is a major migratory stopover,” Matson said in a recent presentation to Robbinsville Township Council. “Birds need this tract desperately to rest and recoup during migration in spring and fall.”

She said 197 bird species have been seen at the privately owned site in recent years, including the bald eagle, formerly an endangered species that is still protected by the federal government. Matson said it’s now harder to see eagles and other birds at the site because of restricted access during what appears to be preliminary development work.

Matson said she asked New Jersey Audubon for help, thinking that the conservation nonprofit would defend an important site for migratory birds. But the group said it doesn’t get involved in local land disputes, and uses its limited resources to fight for statewide and international environmental causes such as climate change and cross-border shorebird protection.

“Local land use decisions are just that — local,” said New Jersey Audubon president Eric Stiles. “We only get involved in local land use issues if it is precedent-setting, or of statewide significance — not because it’s not a good issue, or a legitimate issue, it’s just one of bandwidth and capacity.”

But he said the organization is concerned about the impact of warehouse “sprawl” in New Jersey and is beginning to develop policy recommendations to guide it. Opponents say the development would especially affect nearby Allentown, a historic community that doesn’t have the road capacity to take an anticipated increase in truck traffic.

Small roads, big trucks

“With warehouses springing up all over New Jersey like mushrooms after a storm, seeing towns push back is nothing new,” said Greg Westfall, a former mayor of Allentown, and a member of the alliance. “But Allentown, with its tiny main road, can’t sustain the intense, heavy truck traffic that is bound to come through.”

Dave Fried, the mayor of Robbinsville, argued that the critics are “completely misinformed” about their traffic fears. He said the current mayor of Allentown, Thomas Fritts, has asked the property owner to build a traffic circle that would divert current and future truck traffic from the town center.

While many towns welcome warehouse applications because of the extra tax revenue they bring, Robbinsville is not among them because it is financially in a good position, Fried said.

“Robbinsville Township is probably the only township in the state of New Jersey that hasn’t had a tax increase in about nine years,” he said. “We haven’t had one again this year. The town is in fantastic financial condition so that has not been one of our objectives at all.”

The township ended last year with a budget surplus of about $3.3 million, according to its director of community development, Paul Renaud. He said the township already has about 10.2 million square feet of warehousing, of which 2.7 million square feet has been added in the last 10 years.

Robbinsville’s approval of the project was based on the application being broadly consistent with current zoning and the expectation that it would lose any lawsuit if it had denied a permit, Fried said.

“I don’t think we would have prevailed in court had we rejected the application,” he said.

The township granted a “use variance,” which Fried said was “not a major change” because the site was already zoned for a major commercial building.

Change zoning regulations?

Advocates for curbs on warehouse development say municipalities should consider pre-emptively changing their zoning so that their land is not consistent with warehouse projects, and they are not faced with applications that they may be unable to deny.

“If towns want to be forward-thinking, they should be looking to rein in outdated designations,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Towns are getting closer to full buildout, and once you’ve built a warehouse or a commercial development, you can’t reverse those environmental damages.”

The Robbinsville site is unique among potential warehouse locations in New Jersey because it attracts endangered and threatened species, and that could allow the Department of Environmental Protection to exercise its authority to block the project, O’Malley argued. Neither the DEP nor developer responded to requests for comment.

“It’s hard to argue that a massive warehouse development is not going to disturb the habitat for the listed species, so this would be a reason to deny,” O’Malley said. “This is a unique site because of the nexus of migratory birds and the presence of endangered species.”

Still, local planners are likely to face continued pressure from warehouse developers because of overwhelming demand from e-commerce, argued Michael Silverman, executive vice president at Newmark Knight Frank, a commercial real estate valuation company whose territory includes New Jersey.

“We’re in a different world now,” he said. “Everything is warehouse distribution. When is the last time you went to a store to buy something?”

Land prices and rental rates for warehouse space are rising sharply, showing that demand is strong, and is being fueled by investors.

“There’s such institutional money out there that’s looking to acquire these things,” he said. “So developers are working on projects to build these big boxes. The market is exceptionally strong.

“There’s a huge amount of space that’s really needed, you just see it with the velocity of the transactions that have already occurred,” Silverman said.

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