Another warehouse project faces legal fight

Opponents say Robbinsville board shut down public comment. Lawsuit also raises warehouse’s potential environmental impact
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Opponents of two new warehouses planned for Robbinsville, Mercer County, filed a lawsuit against the township’s approval of the project, saying the public was not given enough time to comment and that the decision was “tainted” by its reliance on flawed studies and out-of-date information.

The Alliance for Sustainable Communities: Mercer-Monmouth, a community group, plus two individual plaintiffs, say the Robbinsville Township Zoning Board was wrong to issue a variance to its zoning for the construction of some 500,000 square feet of warehouse space on a partially developed site near the intersection of the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 195.

The opponents say they were given little notice to comment on the project at a virtual public meeting in February, when the township approved the project. At least one objector was “intimidated” by the board’s members, who unanimously granted the variance, the complaint said.

“Despite its complexity and numerous contested factual issues, the application was rushed through to approval in just a single evening’s zoning board meeting, in which opponents were repeatedly cut off and denied the most basic opportunity to have their say,” said the 34-page complaint, filed June 11. It urges the Superior Court to reverse the approval.

Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried declined to comment on a matter in active litigation. Fried has previously said the township approved the project because any denial would probably have been contested in court. In April, he told NJ Spotlight News that the approval was not based on the need for extra tax revenue — an incentive that leads many other towns to approve warehouse projects — because Robbinsville’s finances were already in good shape.

The township already has about 10.2 million square feet of warehousing, of which 2.7 million have been added in the last 10 years.

Surge in warehouse construction

The suit is the latest community challenge to surging warehouse construction, driven by the boom in online shopping and the need to store a mountain of goods before they are delivered. One survey showed 11.1 million square feet of warehouse space were leased in northern and central New Jersey in the first quarter of 2021, a 20-year high.

READ: Will NJ lose ground to warehouse sprawl?

READ: NJ Senate panel rejects bill to curb warehouse sprawl

In May, opponents to a planned development in Piscataway filed what is believed to be the first community legal action against the local zoning board’s approval of some 900,000 square feet of warehouse and associated site development. The plaintiffs in that case argued that new truck traffic would worsen already poor air quality in an environmental justice community.

In the Robbinsville case, the opponents accuse the township of basing the approval in part on “flawed” documents including a stormwater management plan submitted by the developer, Johnson Development Associates, of South Carolina. The plan would not comply with New Jersey’s new stormwater-management regulations, which emphasize organic means such as rain gardens rather than drains for controlling stormwater, and so the board’s approval should be vacated by the court at least on that basis, the suit says.

“The submission of a knowingly invalid and inadequate stormwater management statement impermissibly tainted the zoning board’s consideration of the application,” the complaint says.

Little chance to be heard

At the Feb. 23 meeting, the board gave opponents little chance to make their case, the suit says. It accused the board of cutting off or interrupting speakers, allowing them only three minutes to make their case, and of refusing to continue the hearing to allow more speakers to be heard.

Objections included the effect that the warehouses would have on wildlife at the 90-acre site, which is a magnet for migrating birds and a haven for some endangered or threatened species.

But in a May 9 news release, the board said the public was given the opportunity to voice objections to the project.

“While we understand some constituents feel as if they were not given a chance to speak on this matter at last Tuesday night’s virtual Zoning Board meeting, procedurally the public participation portion of the hearing had been closed and it was not the appropriate time to make comments on this particular application,” the board said.

It said the public will have another opportunity to comment when the developer comes back to the zoning board for site plan and subdivision approval.

Susan Matson, one of the plaintiffs, said construction was originally expected to start in the summer or fall, but it’s now unclear if or when it might start, given the litigation.

Effect on neighboring communities

She said the Robbinsville and Piscataway suits are similar in that they both have concerns about the unintended consequences of warehouses. But Piscataway focuses on the environmental justice impacts of warehouse development whereas the Robbinsville suit emphasizes the impact on the environment and on neighboring Allentown, a historic community, which opponents say would be badly damaged by truck traffic from the proposed new warehouses.

Allentown is a classic case of an adjoining community that would be hard-hit by a new warehouse in the next-door township but is powerless to stop it, argued Micah Rasmussen, a Rider University professor who led a successful campaign — through public protest rather than litigation — against a warehouse project in Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, earlier this year. He predicted more litigation against warehouses.

“As long as towns are allowed to continue to dump their industrial development on the borders of other communities, we should certainly expect to see more opposition,” he said. “Robbinsville residents will not be burdened by the adverse impacts of these warehouses; Allentown residents will endure the entire brunt of the traffic, noise and air pollution with none of the benefits.”

A bill recently introduced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) would require towns facing a warehouse application to seek the approval of neighboring communities before issuing their own approval. Disputes would be decided by county or state planning officials.

In the Robbinsville suit, plaintiffs condemned the board’s acceptance of a traffic study, which they said did not consider the extra truck traffic that is the focus of many anti-warehouse campaigns. They called the traffic study approved by the board “inadmissible.”

READ: Warehouse sprawl and how to combat it in rural NJ

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