Newest warehouse lawsuit involves builder’s plan to use Green Acres land

Phillipsburg residents say town was wrong to allow zoning change and want DEP to block use of preserved land
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Opponents of a plan to build a 510,000-square-foot warehouse in Phillipsburg, are urging the Department of Environmental Protection to deny a request to lift an open-space protection so the site can be developed.

The DEP has designated about 7.5 acres of a 43-acre parcel where the warehouse would be built as open space under its Green Acres program that preserves land and prevents development.

The Phillipsburg Town Council, which changed its zoning in May to allow the development, is asking the DEP to remove the 7.5-acre lot from the Green Acres program, according to a lawsuit filed against the township by five residents who oppose the development.

The suit, filed in late June, says the parcel is listed under the town’s open-space inventory and may not be converted to other uses without the permission of the DEP.

Both the agency, and the mayor of Phillipsburg, Todd Tersigni, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Tim Evans, director of research at the nonprofit New Jersey Future, and an expert on land use, said he was unaware that the DEP had ever removed a parcel of land from the Green Acres program.

A storm of criticism

Inclusion of a parcel in the program means it’s off the market unless the agency decides to sell it, Evans said. But selling it would risk a storm of criticism from taxpayers who have funded the Green Acres program since it started in 1961, he predicted.

“Even if DEP did do that, it would seem like it would be a violation of the public trust, since the public funded all those open-space initiatives back in the 2000s with the understanding that the lands acquired would remain undeveloped,” he said.

“It seems like DEP would have to conduct a big public-relations operation if it had a piece of land in the Green Acres program that it thought there was a compelling reason to now allow that land to be developed,” Evans said.

The possible removal of protection from land that would be developed for a warehouse represents a new source of contention as developers scramble for land where warehouses can be built to meet surging demand from e-commerce businesses.

100 warehouses planned for Garden State

More than 100 warehouses totaling 26.5 million square feet of rentable space are due to be built in New Jersey over the next three years, according to CoStar, an information service for the commercial real estate industry. In northern and central Jersey, 11.1 million square feet of warehouse space was leased in the first three months of 2021, the highest quarterly total for 20 years, according to Newmark, a commercial real estate firm.

The boom — dubbed warehouse “sprawl” by its critics — has spawned lawsuits by community groups who fear the giant buildings will choke roads with truck traffic, and eat up more of the state’s dwindling open space.

In the Phillipsburg suit, the residents argue the council’s zoning change is inconsistent with the town’s 2004 master plan, and with a 2013 plan to redevelop the riverfront along the Delaware River.

They say the warehouse plan is “utterly incompatible” with the town’s website description of itself as a place where people can escape “crowded, impersonal” developments, and instead join a “close-knit community of families and friends.”

The proposed warehouse with 491 truck-parking spaces will “dramatically increase truck traffic on the narrow and congested streets in the area around the Riverview Redevelopment Area, in direct contravention of the master plan and its objective of ‘eliminating truck-dependent uses from areas with no or limited access to the major highway network,’” the complaint says.

The development would also cause a big increase in impervious surface, and would build a large stormwater retention basin, which together would violate DEP stormwater management rules, it says.

Violation of due process

The plaintiffs say the council violated citizens’ due-process rights by not providing full copies of the ordinance before it was voted on; that the ordinance was inconsistent with the master plan; and that the riverfront property is owned by a developer whose principal is also a partner in a law firm that has worked for at least one member of the council.

It accuses the council of a conflict of interest and asks the state Superior Court in Warren County to overturn the ordinance.

The complaint also blasts a consultant’s report for the town council that concluded in February that the town’s plans to amend its riverfront development design were broadly consistent with both the original riverfront plan, and its master plan.

But the consultant, Van Cleef Engineering Associates, said the zoning change to light industrial use would increase truck traffic and “potentially” automobile use in an area that is trying to become more pedestrian-friendly.

The Highlands Coalition, whose area includes Phillipsburg, is not part of the lawsuit but is following it closely because public lands are under threat, said Elliott Ruga, the nonprofit’s head of policy and communications.

“We are firmly against a project that takes away the public’s use of public property and diverts it to private interests, and in this case what is particularly egregious is handing over a city’s prime amenity, riverfront property,” he said.

The group’s executive director, Julia Somers, said any decision to sell off Green Acres land would be made by the State House Commission, which controls the sale and lease of state-owned properties, and relies on the DEP’s Green Acres program to make recommendations, before ruling on whether to sell.

Somers said the proposed removal of the Phillipsburg parcel from Green Acres appears to be a “diversion” in which a property is not being used for the purpose for which it was purchased and preserved. A proposed “diversion” begins with a request from the affected town to the commission, and will usually require another parcel to be substituted for one being sold, she said.

But Micah Rasmussen, a Rider University professor who led a successful campaign against a warehouse project in Upper Freehold earlier this year, said the prospect of losing public open space to private development is alarming.

“Open space preservation has been among the most popular state investments of the last half century, but we can’t take for granted it will always be that way,” he said.

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