Sweeney: Warehouse projects need regional approval

Proposed bill would require local governments to tell adjoining towns about development applications
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville Township, NJ.

Growing worries about warehouse sprawl in New Jersey have prompted a bill that would require municipalities planning new warehouse construction to inform adjoining towns, which could have their concerns heard by an intermunicipal board.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is planning  to introduce the bill on April 26 in response to a proliferation of warehouse projects around the state, and to mounting opposition from communities who say the buildings will choke local roads with trucks and cars and destroy remaining rural enclaves.

“New Jersey is proud to be known as the Garden State, but we are at risk of becoming the warehouse state,” Sweeney said in a statement. “The rapid increase in the construction and operation of retail warehouses poses a threat to the preservation of farmland and open space. The impact of these large-scale projects extends to neighboring communities that can experience economic and environmental consequences that impact their quality of life.”

The measure follows calls by some local officials for a regional approach to planning for warehouses so that towns that don’t want massive warehouses are not affected by neighboring municipalities that welcome the developments, often because they swell local tax revenues.

Compiling warehouse report

Under the bill, a town that receives an application from a warehouse developer would have to inform adjoining communities and send them a report on the project’s anticipated economic impact. The report, to be written at the developer’s expense, would include an assessment of how the proposed warehouse would affect aspects of a town’s master plan such as traffic, open space and affordable housing. It would also project the effect on tax revenues and on local wages and benefits.

The bill, an update to the Municipal Land Use Law, would create an intermunicipal board to consider concerns raised by adjoining townships. It would allow the “host” municipality to approve an application if the joint panel determines that the project would not harm the “general welfare” of adjoining municipalities or impair their master plan.

The host municipality could also approve a project if an adjoining town withdraws a resolution expressing its concerns, or if that town reaches an “accommodation” with the developer, the bill says.

If two municipalities could not resolve their differences over a development plan, the aggrieved town could appeal to a new Intermunicipal Impact Advisory Board, a 15-person panel whose members would include a planner, traffic expert, and land-use attorney, all appointed by the governor, the bill says. The board would have the final say over whether a warehouse plan could go ahead.

READ: Warehouse ‘sprawl’ spreads in NJ as pandemic accelerates e-commerce surge

READ: Controversial warehouse plan makes headway in rural Warren County

“This bill requires municipalities to take into account the potential effects of approving the construction and operation of retail warehouses on neighboring municipalities,” it says.

Sweeney said the construction and operation of warehouses have an impact on land use, traffic, the environment, local economies, the fiscal well-being of municipal governments and social equity in the region. They can also have a negative impact on businesses and jobs in the area.

Ensuring all voices are heard

“We need to have safeguards in place that allow for reasonable controls before the projects are approved,” he said in a statement. “The host community and neighboring towns need to have a voice in the process and the ability to reject proposals that will cause them harm. The warehouses should be located where they make sense.”

Undeveloped land in many townships is being targeted by warehouse developers who are hungry for space to meet the huge demand from distributors of goods purchased online. Warehouse proposals include one for 2.8 million square feet in White Township, Warren County, where a county report last year concluded that traffic would overwhelm the mostly rural area if the White Township and other proposed warehouses were built.

In Jackson Township, Ocean County, planning officials last month approved construction of about 1 million square feet of warehouse space as part of the latest phase of Adventure Crossing, a multi-use development. The new work will involve clearing about 72 acres of woodland.

But a developer last week unexpectedly dropped a plan to build about 560,000 square feet of warehouse space in Upper Freehold Township, Monmouth County. Campaigners attributed the withdrawal to the strength of local protests, the speculative nature of the project and the fact that it would have required a variance to local zoning law.

Location, location, location

Micah Rasmussen, a Rider University professor who led a successful campaign against the Upper Freehold warehouse plan, said Sweeney’s bill would address a well-recognized problem of “dumping,” in which a town approves development but places a project on the border of an adjoining town that has to deal with most of the impacts but is powerless to stop it. That practice, he said, has been “politically irresistible” because it gives the host township the extra tax revenue of a project while minimizing its impacts by keeping it at arms’ length.

The bill, he said, would address the dumping issue. “This kind of approach to the impacts of a land-use proposal that is regional in scope is exactly what we need to see more of. It is a long overdue recognition that a large-scale development can have impacts that not only extend beyond the site itself, but beyond the municipal border.”

Residents of Millstone, Upper Freehold and Plumsted could have benefited from such a law when the massive Adventure Crossing project in neighboring Jackson Township was under discussion, Rasmussen said.

He said Sweeney’s plan appears to be designed to produce an accommodation between municipalities so that an adjoining town’s objections can be addressed.

“It is a tool with teeth, and one that would be extremely beneficial in dealing with so many of the proposals that are overwhelming the state and our undeveloped land right now,” Rasmussen said.

He added he hopes that Sweeney’s leadership will give impetus to the bill in the Legislature, and that it’s backed by Gov. Phil Murphy who he said recognizes the statewide threat of “unchecked, rampant development.”

Pete Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates for “smart growth,” welcomed the proposal for municipalities to coordinate a response to the warehouse wave.

Worrying about warehouse sprawl

“The fact that a bill like this was introduced means that there is a growing recognition that warehouse sprawl is coming and is an urgent matter,” he said. “Having municipalities talk to each other and coordinate around major developments of any kind is a good idea.”

But he said the bill should have required towns to revisit their master plans and zoning so that they can make decisions about where it makes sense to allow warehouses, and where it doesn’t.

Mike Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities said the group’s response to the bill is under review but that the proposals would represent a major change for municipalities.

“If we’re looking at a serious change to these particular projects, we have to make sure that the interests of both sides are represented, that rules of the game are clear and transparent, and it doesn’t add costs on to taxpayers,” he said.

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

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

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