In a move to revive the controversial measure, a state Senate committee approved a bill on Thursday that aims to curb warehouse “sprawl” by requiring municipalities to seek the approval of neighboring towns before clearing the way for such projects.
The Senate’s Budget and Appropriations Committee voted by eight votes to two, with two abstentions to advance S-3688, which would require towns to inform adjoining municipalities that they have received a warehouse proposal and to obtain their agreement before approving a project. Any disputes would be resolved by county planning boards or the State Planning Commission.
The unexpected move on the bill — co-sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney — comes a week after it was withdrawn from another Senate committee over objections it could stifle job growth at a time many cities need it most.
Almost identical to that last version, the bill aims to get regional buy-in for warehouse projects whose recent proliferation has sparked strong community opposition in some places amid fears of a surge in truck traffic and an intrusion on the state’s dwindling public space by the giant buildings.
“Warehouse sprawl has become a real threat to the quality of life in communities throughout the state,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “The rapid surge in the construction of large-sized warehouses has a regional impact that crosses municipal boundaries to neighboring towns. They should have a voice in the approval process.”
Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), another co-sponsor, said the recent surge in e-commerce has driven demand for new warehouse sites, which have sometimes been developed without concern for neighboring towns that may not want the project.
“This legislation would allow these communities to voice their concerns when neighboring towns are considering the construction of warehouses,” he said in a statement. “This will not only protect our natural resources, but will also protect the quality of life for the families living in these towns.”
The bill was approved with some changes from a version that failed to advance in the Senate’s Community and Urban Affairs Committee recently.
Pete Kasabach, executive director of the nonprofit New Jersey Future, welcomed the bill being advanced as a step toward a regional planning approach but said there are some questions.
Massive projects, minimal disruption?
“While there appears to be broad agreement that New Jersey needs to embrace a more regional approach to planning, there is still work to be done to determine how that should happen,” he said. “In the end, we all want to see these massive developments located appropriately with as little disruption to commerce as possible, and I am confident that we can find a solution.”
More than 11 million square feet of warehouse space was leased in central and northern New Jersey in the first quarter of 2021, the highest total for at least 20 years, according to a recent survey by Newmark, a commercial real estate valuation company. The survey provided statistical evidence for the many anecdotal reports of a surge in warehouse construction as developers scramble for space to store an avalanche of goods ordered online — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael McGuinness, chief executive of NAIOP, a trade group representing developers, said after the committee vote that New Jersey needs to plan better for the growth in e-commerce and the resultant need for more warehouses. He said he supports the formation of a working group to explore how the freight industry can be a “good neighbor.”
Janet Tauro, New Jersey board chair for the environmental group Clean Water Action, spoke in support of the bill, saying warehouse sprawl can be controlled by reusing existing buildings like offices and malls rather than building new structures, and by electrifying the trucks that serve warehouses.
Regional impact and concerns
The bill would require a municipality to notify adjoining towns with a “notice of regional impact” when an application is filed to build a warehouse, allowing the neighboring communities to adopt a resolution of “regional concerns,” which would entitle them to have their objections addressed by the host community and proposed developer.
If the concerns are not resolved, the proposal would go to the county planning board, which would be empowered to reject or approve the application. Appeals could be made to the State Planning Commission. The state commission would also be responsible for considering proposed developments that impact municipalities that cross county lines.
Mike Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said the bill would weaken local power over whether to approve warehouses, and give more authority to higher tiers of government such as county planners or the planning commission.
“Any time you move decision-making away from those who are most impacted by it the concerns of the local community get diluted,” he said.
But the bill won support from Micah Rasmussen, a Rider University professor who led a successful community campaign against a warehouse project in Upper Freehold, resulting in the developer withdrawing its proposal.
“Thousands of New Jersey’s undeveloped greenfield acres will be gone forever without a regional approach like this legislation provides,” he said.
Next, the bill will go before the full Senate.