Bid to stem tide of warehouse sprawl fails to advance in Senate

Measure sought broader authority over warehouse development and was co-sponsored by the Senate president. His members didn’t agree
Credit: (Ryan Parker on Unsplash)
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A Senate committee on Thursday unexpectedly rejected a bill that would have weakened local power over warehouse development, and given a greater say to other municipalities and state and county planning authorities.

The bill (S-3688) sought to control a current surge in warehouse construction by requiring towns facing warehouse applications to tell adjoining municipalities about the plans and seek their approval. It also proposed that disputes should be decided by county planning boards, and that appeals would go to the State Planning Commission.

But the bill garnered only two “yes” votes and three abstentions on the five-person Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, meaning that it failed to advance, in a rebuff to its architects including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark), the committee’s vice chairman, unexpectedly abstained, saying he was concerned about the economic impact of making it harder for warehouses to be approved. If Rice had voted for the bill, he would have joined committee chairman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Jersey City) in a 3-2 margin, which would have allowed the bill to advance.

Singleton said he was “personally very disappointed” by Rice’s abstention. Rice did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment after the vote.

New version of bill possible

A new version of the bill may now go before the Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Singleton said repeatedly during an hour-long debate that the bill was intended just as a starting point for discussion among stakeholders including municipalities, business groups, environmentalists and residents, all of which were represented at the hearing.

“The Senate president and I, as sponsors of this legislation, do not believe that this will be the last conversation on this particular bill,” Singleton said. “I do believe, though, this is an important step in the conversation around regional economic development.

“If we continue to just chase dollars from community to community, we are harming our state by not having the forethought to think through a real regional planning exercise so that we can move our state forward, not just one particular town against another,” he said.

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

READ: Birders battle warehouse plan at major highway intersection

The bill was prompted by rising concern that millions of square feet of new warehouses are being approved throughout New Jersey as developers scramble for space that will store a huge volume of goods ordered online by customers throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Opponents say local roads are being choked with truck traffic and New Jersey’s scarce open space is being eaten up by the giant buildings. Supporters, including some local officials, say the warehouses generate jobs and tax revenue.

Negative impacts on neighboring municipalities

The bill’s supporters argue that a regional approach to warehouse planning would avoid warehouse-friendly towns reaping tax benefits while neighboring municipalities experience negative impacts such as increased traffic from projects that they may not have approved of themselves.

The measure would have given towns a say in whether a warehouse project could go ahead in a neighboring municipality and would have required a “host” municipality to submit a report on the regional economic impact of such a development. The report would include an analysis of a project’s impacts on local wages, retail sales and public infrastructure, and whether it would conflict with a town’s master plan.

The bill rejected Thursday had already been revised to ensure that a final planning decision would still be made locally even if county or state panels resolved a dispute. And the latest version removed an earlier plan to set up a new panel at the Department of Community Affairs to rule on planning disputes.

“The development of new types of large warehouses within a host municipality often results in land use, traffic, environmental, economic, fiscal and social-equity effects beyond the boundaries of the host municipality, and may adversely impact the overall region in which the large warehouse is being proposed for development,” the bill said.

Supporters who testified at the hearing included Micah Rasmussen, a Rider University professor who led a successful campaign against a planned warehouse at Upper Freehold in Monmouth County. That developer withdrew its application in April after vigorous community opposition.

After Thursday’s hearing, Rasmussen said that citizens such as those in Upper Freehold will continue to resist warehouse projects, but their cause would be better served if the bill became law.

Need to challenge ‘deep-pocketed developers’

“The way citizens must fight warehouse sprawl is by facing down deep-pocketed developers in a local land-use process where the rules are often stacked in their favor,” he said. “If that’s the statewide approach that we want to continue to take, then we’ll continue to see our state’s remaining green fields being gobbled up hundreds of acres at a time.”

Rasmussen said Sweeney and Singleton recognize the urgency of passing the bill, given the strong demand for warehouse land. “Speculative demand reflects a herd mentality among investors, and it is moving quickly.  If we study the situation for a year, lasting damage will be done in the meantime,” he said.

In an earlier interview, Nancy Grbelja, deputy mayor of Millstone Township in Monmouth County, said she supported the bill’s proposal that “host” towns should be required to seek their neighbors’ approval for warehouse applications. But she said the real solution would be for a statewide planning process that recognized the widespread impacts of warehouse development.

“I think the state has got to take the bull by the horns, setting up a strategic plan statewide, with warehouse districts that would be appropriate,” she said.

But Ray Cantor of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association opposed the bill, defending the growth of warehousing as a way of boosting the prosperity of a state that’s well-positioned to provide logistics services in a densely populated region.

“Warehouse development in New Jersey is generally a good thing,” he said at the hearing. “It’s sound economic policy that warehouses should be encouraged for all the logistical advantages that New Jersey has.”

Still, he said there may be a need for more regional planning to support the economic development brought by warehouses. Creating a structure that allowed municipalities to come together and plan for warehouse development would be a “very productive thing,” he said.

“What we do not need is more process and regulations that may harm this economic engine,” Cantor said.

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

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