NJ to issue its first guidelines on where warehouses should be built

When she first heard about the massive warehouse project coming to her New Jersey town, 18-year-old resident Tirza Wahrman broke down in tears.

The proposed 5.5 million-square-foot warehouse project — with seven buildings and 910 loading docks built in multiple phases — would be within a few miles of apartment developments, single-family homes and an elementary school in West Windsor in Mercer County, said Wahrman. , a lawyer and former vice chair of the township’s environmental commission.

She began organizing a fight to stop the project, which would be bigger than the nearby Quakerbridge Mall.

“This is just the absolute wrong place to put a warehouse,” Wahrman said.

The battle over the “Bridge Point” distribution center project in West Windsor is one of numerous fights over warehouse development playing out across New Jersey as online retailers continue to look for space to meet the increasing demand for ever-faster shipping to customers.

Now, for the first time, the state is issuing guidance on where warehouses should be located in New Jersey and how they should be approved to help municipalities deal with the growing number or proposals to build sprawling buildings in their communities.

The state Office of Planning Advocacy unveiled a draft version of the guidance in June to help “municipalities that are looking for ways to provide economic opportunities while also protecting New Jersey’s critical infrastructure and environmental assets,” said Donna Rendeiro, executive director of the planning advocacy. office and secretary of the State Planning Commission.

The advisory document comes roughly a year after a bill that would have put dramatic controls on warehouse development in New Jersey was introduced in the state legislature by former State Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

The legislation, strongly opposed by the state’s commercial real estate industry and business groups, died in Trenton to the frustration of critics who worry New Jersey is rapidly becoming the “Warehouse State.”

Unlike the proposed law, the new state guidance on warehouse development is not mandatory. So, towns are not required to follow it. But state officials say it will provide New Jersey municipalities with a first-ever roadmap on how to consider whether to approve warehouse proposals.

The draft of the state guidelines, which have not been finalized, includes recommendations for communities to reexamine their master plans and update zoning ordinances. The guidelines also call for towns to create community advisory boards made up of local residents to review and provide feedback on project proposals in the early planning stages. Municipalities should also require developers of new warehouse construction to meet enhanced green infrastructure standards, the draft version of the guidelines say.

Finding ways to support the sustainable, equitable and practical location of warehouses is essential to supporting New Jersey’s business sector, state officials said.

The state guidance document closed for public comment on July 29 and was scheduled for a vote on Aug. 3 before the state Planning Commission. However, the vote was postponed for one month to allow the commission to review late arriving public comments to determine if any should be included, state officials said.

An answer to growing opposition

Residents packed meetings in Mansfield Township last summer to protest warehouse development in their community. The town has since passed an ordinance temporarily prohibiting new warehouse development. File photo from July 2021 protest.Eric Talerico

State planning officials hope the new state guidelines will help communities navigate the complex process of considering warehouse proposals that have sparked bitter fights in many communities.

In West Windsor, the 29,500-resident community is continuing to battle over the proposed warehouse development. The fight has led to a lawsuit and hefty settlement, lengthy and loud public meetings and an online petition with thousands of signatures.

In other New Jersey municipalities, concerns about clean air, safe water and open space — in addition to worries about traffic congestion and other disruptions — are drawing crowds to planning and zoning board meetings as warehouse projects are proposed.

In Lawnside in Camden County, residents have raised objections to the increasing number of warehouse applications and how the new development could change the character of their residential community founded in 1840 by free Black people.

And in Piscataway in Middlesex County, disagreements over the approval of a proposed warehouse development have bubbled over into two lawsuits against the local zoning board.

Other communities across New Jersey are also considering applications to build warehouses from developers who say they need to meet demand for space to store and distribute goods.

The growing need for delivery in the booming e-commerce industry has fueled the growth of warehouse development in New Jersey, industry experts said. New Jersey is within a 24-hour drive of nearly 40% of the nation’s population, according to Moody Analytics, an economic research firm.

But some industry watchers say the demand for warehouse space in New Jersey may be waning. Amazon, the world’s biggest retailer, recently said it will shrink its warehouse space in New Jersey after nearly a decade of expansion.

Calls for a warehouse law

It is unclear if the new state guidelines on warehouse development will be enough to quell community battles over proposed projects.

The state guidance “appears to provide specific strategies for dealing with the challenges of the development of a large warehouse, so that decisions being made are proactive and in the best interest of the region, rather than reactive and exacerbating pre-existing traffic congestion and other issues,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer.

Turner’s district includes West Windsor, where the large 5.5 million square foot warehouse development is proposed. The guidance would have been useful for officials there prior to approving a project with such massive implications, Turner suggested.

West Windsor warehouse site plan

Site location of the massive 5.5 million square foot project proposed in West Windsor. It will be many times bigger than the Quakerbridge Mall across the street.

“With the large warehouse being approved in West Windsor, West Windsor is receiving all of the benefit in terms of tax dollars while the neighboring municipalities will be left to manage the negative effects of increased traffic, noise, and pollution, greater risk to public safety. , wear and tear on area roads, and the potential for flooding,” she said.

Turner added, the state guidance on warehouse development “would be more helpful if it had some teeth.”

Some developers, including BridgePoint WW LLC, the firm behind the West Windsor project, say they already take into consideration environmental concerns and other issues raised by a community when approaching a new project.

“We wanted to be very mindful and very thoughtful of how the development is going to work into the natural environment,” said John Porcek, vice president of development at Bridge Industrial, discussing the company’s West Windsor project in May.

Elected officials, residents, and special interest groups said the state’s first-of-its-kind warehouse recommendations are a great first step. But, they said the 30-plus page document is not codified law, which means municipal officials can choose to ignore it.

“We really need to codify something that works with home rule but also creates a more regional approach of communities consulting with each other in a situation where there is clear impact from a project that effects multiple communities,” said Kip Cherry, an executive committee member. of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter.

Cherry has drafted her own, more narrow set of rules for warehouse development on behalf of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter. It would require any community considering a large warehouse proposal to hold a hearing involving the surrounding municipalities. Towns would also be required to advertise those meetings far in advance.

“I think guidelines are a good reference and help people to prepare in advance. But also, better communication between the municipalities would be very helpful,” Cherry said.

Cherry is still awaiting feedback on her proposal from the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, an association that helps municipalities share information.

Some critics would like to see the state go a step further and issue an all-out ban on new warehouse development — at least temporarily.

“We should be incentivizing rebuilding our cities and deteriorating suburban areas, not incentivizing and promoting and declaring active farmland as areas in need of redevelopment,” said Robert Tallon, a committeeman from Mansfield Township in Burlington County and a member of the Crafts Creek Watershed Association. .

After widespread opposition from residents to a spate of warehouse development projects, Mansfield Township passed an ordinance in March banning more warehouses from being developed, beyond those that were already approved or under construction.

The state should adopt a similar moratorium on warehouse development until it finds a way to address criticism about traffic, pollution and loss of open space, said Tallon, who said he was speaking for himself, not the township committee or the watershed association.

Howard Hughes Corporation property

The former Howard Hughes Corporation property. West Windsor has entered into a settlement agreement with Atlantic Realty that allows the property to be developed in the future.Michael Mancuso

While the new guidance proposed by the Office of Planning Advocacy may not be law, critics of warehouse sprawl are already looking for ways to use the document in lawsuits to argue projects should never have been approved.

For Wahrman in West Windsor, the fight over warehouse development in her town is far from over.

“It’s foreseeable that the court might say something about the State Planning Commission guidance. It doesn’t have the force of law, but it can be seen as persuasive,” Wahrman said.

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Jackie Roman may be reached at [email protected].

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