Ban more new warehouses on farmland, lawmakers say

Sweeney looks to move after election, adding to bill already in Assembly to curb development
Credit: (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
File photo: Amazon.com truck shown parked at a fulfillment center

Towns would be unable to designate farmland for commercial redevelopment under legislative proposals that are aimed at curbing warehouse sprawl in New Jersey.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington) are now looking to exclude farmland from redevelopment or rehabilitation under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law of 1992, which allows municipalities to designate land for those purposes.

The proposal has already been made in an Assembly bill (A-5793) introduced by Assemblymen Parker Space (R-Morris, Sussex, Warren) and Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth) on June 1. The Senate version is expected to mirror the Assembly’s.

A Senate bill, expected to be introduced after the November elections, would change the definitions of redevelopment and rehabilitation under the law so that farmland can’t be used for commercial development such as warehouses.

“In the last few years, we have taken great lengths to protect our state’s farmlands,” Sweeney said in a statement last week. “By taking these steps to exclude farmland from being classified as a redevelopment area or rehabilitation area, we are further ensuring the protection of these vital spaces and preventing further warehouse sprawl, which will help keep New Jersey green for decades to come.”

Effects of existing law

The 1992 law, which aims to reverse deteriorating housing, commercial and industrial facilities, defines a redevelopment area as one where buildings aren’t necessarily a danger to public welfare but whose redevelopment is needed to revive an area. In a rehabilitation area, buildings need extensive repair, reconstruction or renovation.

The Sweeney-Addiego measure follows another bill introduced in April by Sweeney and Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) that would require any town that receives a warehouse application to seek the approval of adjoining towns that would be affected by the development.

Developers are scrambling for space to build warehouses that will supply the booming e-commerce industry, and often seek previously undeveloped land including farms. In the second quarter of this year, warehouse vacancies in northern and central New Jersey dropped, rents soared, and the amount of  space under construction accelerated from the first quarter, according to industry data.

Opponents of the warehouse development boom say it is eating into New Jersey’s scarce open space and threatening to choke local roads with truck traffic serving the giant buildings. Supporters note that the logistics industry is one of the state’s biggest employers, and that its expansion represents an important opportunity for the economy.

Gap in the law?

The new legislation being drafted aims to close what the sponsors said they see as a gap in the law that allows farmland to be eaten up by warehouses.

“A loophole in our current law is allowing farmland to be redeveloped into warehouses, straining our infrastructure and threatening the future of the farming sector,” said Addiego. “Alongside further efforts to prevent warehouse sprawl, we must protect the valuable green spaces we have throughout the state and ensure they are preserved as farmland as intended.”

The new measure under consideration follows a meeting between Sweeney, Addiego and officials in Mansfield, Burlington County, where eight warehouses totaling between 4 million and 5 million square feet have been approved because of farmland being designated for redevelopment, according to the township’s deputy mayor, Bob Tallon.

Tallon urged lawmakers to support the legislation, which would prevent more warehouses from being built on farmland in the township, and any more farmland from being lost. He estimated that 500-600 acres of farmland will be occupied by warehouses and parking lots by the time the approved warehouses are built.

Tallon argued that the 1992 law was designed to help revitalize urban areas and has been misapplied to farmland.

‘We want to remain primarily farm’

“Redevelopment was meant as a tool to redo our cities, and it’s being used as a planning tool where you can designate active farmland that’s productive for the purpose of warehouses, and we didn’t think that was a good use,” he said. “We want to remain primarily farm, and if we fill our township with warehouses, we’ve lost our original plan.”

The township is not opposed to all kinds of commercial development but is especially concerned about warehouses because of their effect on the area’s remaining rural character, Tallon said.

Opponents of warehouse development on farmland were encouraged in January when New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs rejected an application by Franklin Township, Warren County to redevelop more than 100 acres of farmland for commercial activity.

The DCA Commissioner, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, told the township that the parcel was in an environmentally sensitive area which was designed to maintain a large, contiguous area of farmland, and so did not qualify for redevelopment.

In a letter to township mayor Jeff DeAngelis, Oliver also said the area in question was already an Agricultural Development Area under state law and has been designated for preservation by both Warren County and by Franklin Township’s master plan.

“Based on our review, the township’s determination is not approved,” she wrote.

Julia Somers, executive director of the nonprofit Highlands Coalition, welcomed the DCA’s decision on Franklin Township as well as the new legislation on farmland designation.

“Anything that holds up to prevent warehouses being built on our best farmland — some of them miles away from any decent road links — is welcome,” she said.

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