Special report: New Jersey warehouses bloom in the Delaware River watershed
88 million square feet of warehouses are coming to just 14 counties in New Jersey. Where does your county rank?
| April 25, 2023
It’s well known that New Jersey is rife with warehouse and distribution centers, which have sprouted like weeds throughout the Garden State.
How many of these mammoth structures are proposed in all or parts of 14 counties in the western flank of the state that make up the Delaware River watershed and how many square feet could they potentially occupy?
Answers to those questions were unknown — until now.
A Delaware Currents investigation reveals that nearly 150 warehouses – totaling 88 million square feet – are proposed or have been recently approved or built in the area that makes up the Delaware River watershed in New Jersey.
Even by New Jersey standards, where warehouses are prolific, those numbers are staggering.
To put 88 million square feet into context:
- It’s the equivalent of 42 MetLife Stadiums.
- It’s the equivalent of 29 American Dream malls. That East Rutherford, N.J., mall, at 3 million square feet and with 450 stores, is the second largest indoor mall in America.
- That 88 million square feet is about 2.5 times the size of Central Park and would extend three Manhattan avenues across and run about 150 blocks long.
- In that space, you could fit roughly 4,000 Boeing 737s.
The number of warehouse projects on the drawing board in the New Jersey watershed is undoubtedly a malleable figure, as some applicants may have come forward since Delaware Currents began its reporting in January and some projects may have been shelved or denied. And to be clear: It does not include numerous warehouse projects planned outside the boundaries of the watershed. (See the explanatory story of how we arrived at our figures.)
Regardless, the 88 million square feet figure is the first and only known snapshot of how much warehouse construction is proposed in the Delaware watershed in New Jersey.
And it’s a conservative figure at that.
For instance, that total does not account for all the warehouse projects approved or constructed in the watershed before 2021. On that front, Delaware Currents could account for at least 23 million square feet of existing warehouse space in the watershed in the state.
Further, the 88 million-square-foot total excludes nearly 6 million square feet of warehouse projects denied in Gloucester County alone –– projects that potentially still could be resurrected.
A 48-page document with guidance about warehouse siting released in September by the New Jersey State Planning Commission cited a 2021 report by the commercial real estate firm Costar. The report forecast more than 100 warehouses of 26.5 million square feet were expected to be built in New Jersey over the next three years.
What Delaware Currents documented was warehouse space of more than three times that amount in just 14 counties alone.
What does it matter?
Planners and activists who have monitored the explosive growth of warehouses have raised a multitude of concerns.
Among them: water and ground pollution caused by contaminated runoff; loss of natural habitats and farmlands; air pollution caused by diesel trucks making trips to and from warehouses; a loss of community character; increased wear and tear on roads and infrastructure; potentially more traffic deaths; light and noise pollution; loss of open space and damaged aesthetics.
If you look at a map, the watershed in New Jersey forms the shape of a backward “S.”
It covers all or parts of 14 counties, starting with the northwestern county of Sussex. Working its way south, the watershed then takes in parts of Warren, Morris, Hunterdon, Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic and Cape May Counties, all of Salem County and virtually all of Cumberland County.
What happens in the New Jersey watershed does not stay in the watershed. And that’s important because millions of people rely on the Delaware River for their drinking water.
All of those warehouse building slabs, roofs and parking lots create impermeable surfaces – hard coverings — that do not allow water to seep into the soil and recharge underground water supplies. Think about the difference between pouring water onto sand vs. pouring water onto asphalt.
Further, as water falls on the hard surfaces, it can take with it the oils, contaminants and other wastes that can accumulate and send them into tributaries leading to the river.
Doing away with the natural landscape – farmlands, for example — and creating more impervious surfaces promotes a greater volume of fast-moving and dirtier runoff that then gets into streams and harms the wildlife there, said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
“What we’re doing is adding another thumb on the scale by degrading the environment,” she said.
Tracey Wilson Heisler, board president of the Skylands Preservation Alliance, which is fighting proposed warehouses in Warren County, said: “It’s not just a matter of NIMBY aesthetics. There are real-world environmental and consumer impacts.”
Referring to the area of Warren County where she lives, she said it’s one of the most productive in the state for farming.
“As soon as you tear it up, it’s ruined,” she said.
Warren and Salem Counties: dead centers for more warehouses
At a webinar about warehouses last month, Lee Clark, a councilman in Phillipsburg in Warren County, outlined what makes New Jersey so attractive for warehouse developers: The state is uniquely positioned between major population centers between New York City and Philadelphia and it’s a coastal state with ports that allow imports via ship to trucks and then to warehouses.
“From a logistics standpoint, you can see New Jersey is getting the short end of the stick because of our placement in the United States,” he said.
Coming up: In its next installment in a series about warehouses in the watershed in New Jersey, Delaware Currents will explore how the warehouse boom took hold.
How the 88 million square feet of proposed or recently approved warehouse space is distributed reflects a continuing trend in which certain counties are the most intensely targeted.
An analysis by Delaware Currents reveals that the top five hot spots — Burlington, Salem, Gloucester, Warren and Mercer Counties – collectively make up more than half of the Delaware River watershed in New Jersey.
What’s more, state data from 2017-21 about permits issued for “storage” space compared with the planned projects show that Warren and Salem Counties are in the cross-hairs for astronomical growth.
About 4.6 million square feet of storage space was permitted in Warren from 2017-21, according to state figures. In the past two years, proposed warehouse space in Warren exceeds 13 million square feet, a potential jump of 185 percent, Delaware Currents found.
Salem County, south of Camden and across the river from Wilmington, Del., faces a staggering potential leap in warehouse space of 522 percent, rising from already permitted storage space of 2.9 million square feet to 18.4 million square feet, figures show.
Data show other watershed counties facing sizable potential increases in warehouse space include: Camden (215 percent); Gloucester (67 percent); and Mercer (52 percent).
‘Irreparable damage’ forecast
Because of home rule – the principle that communities can independently govern themselves and chart their own destinies – New Jersey municipalities and counties largely operate in silos from one another.
That means each of the localities have their own boards or committees that review proposed projects within their borders but without necessarily considering the cumulative ecological impacts from other warehouses planned in neighboring communities.
A few warehouses on their own might not be damaging, but stacks of them heavily concentrated in a given area will take a toll, activists said.
Kate Tallon director of operations at the Crafts Creek Spring Hill Brook Watershed Association in Bordentown, N.J., in Burlington County, said pollution in the form of diesel fumes, oily runoff and salt and other contaminants from parking lots do not adhere to property lines, much less municipal borders.
“The big missing piece: The environment does not follow the letter of the law,” Tallon said. “Air follows its own path. Water follows its own path. We don’t have control over those things.”
Builders are siting warehouses on lots that were once considered unbuildable, she said.
“Suddenly, we’re bulldozing steep slopes, we’re filling in wetlands,” she said. “You don’t put industrial parks in residential areas, and that’s what’s happening.”
“I think we’re looking at irreparable damage,” she added. “It’s dire.”
Not only have some local waters been polluted with sediment and contaminants, but they’ve flooded as well – even during drought conditions – because of the high percentage of impervious surfaces, she said.
She said she believes warehouses are going to contribute to a “serious health decline in our state” and the damage will last at least a generation.
“It was all happening too fast,” she said.
Stacey Fox, executive director of a warehouse activist group, the Mercer County Defense League, said residents need to press their elected leaders to find remedies.
“We used to live in this place – you might have heard of it – the Garden State, now known as the logistics state,” she said.
Michael Mele contributed reporting.
HOW WE DID THIS STORY
Efforts to find a single authoritative source that inventoried proposed warehouses in the Delaware River watershed in New Jersey proved impossible and for good reason: Not one agency or organization alone tracks them all. Instead, the information is scattershot across a patchwork of jurisdictions and review authorities.
For months, Delaware Currents trawled through county and municipal planning agendas, meeting minutes, project applications and public notices; filed public records requests, reviewed property records, news reports and real estate listings; and interviewed activists, researchers and planners to identify proposed warehouses by locality and square footage.
Given the vagaries of how the information is recorded, the figure we arrived at, 88 million square feet, may not be an absolutely spot-on number but if this research were a game of bocce, our ball would most certainly be the closest to “kissing” the jack.
Our number is a conservative snapshot of how much space has been recently proposed, approved or built in the watershed in New Jersey. It does not account for any warehouses that might have been approved or constructed in the watershed counties before 2021; Delaware Currents inventoried projects proposed, approved or built from 2021 through early 2023.
Also, it’s important to bear in mind that we identified projects in the 14 New Jersey counties that make up the Delaware River watershed. There are other warehouse projects proposed in these counties, but if they fell outside the watershed, we did not include them.
We relied on this interactive Delaware River Basin Commission map to see if a project fell inside the watershed.
The Airtable spreadsheet we’ve posted is intended to be a “living document” that can be updated as more information comes to light. Know of a project that is mistakenly listed here or of ones that should be added? Drop us a line at email@example.com
As for the figures that identified permitted warehouse space in the counties in the watershed from 2017-21, we relied on data from the State Department of Community Affairs.
The department has a category listed as “Square Feet of Other Nonresidential Space Authorized by Building Permits” that tracks “storage” square footage data. We drilled into the historical data for those communities in the Delaware River watershed.
That nonresidential space is defined as: “Buildings used to store goods that are not highly combustible or explosive. Includes warehouses, open parking garages, lumberyards, livestock shelters, and mausoleums (group S).”
That means the data of existing permitted storage space is not purely limited to warehouses and does include a blend of other uses. So, again, the figures are not absolutely precise but they are the best numbers available.
As a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation noted, “While this grouping does include some other types of facilities, we have found it to be very useful in identifying the counties and municipalities that have approved major concentrations of warehouse facilities over the last 19 years.”
Upcoming stories in our warehouse coverage include:
How did we get here? What conditions set the stage to make parts of the Delaware River watershed in New Jersey so ripe for warehouse development?
Activists are organizing in opposition to proposed warehouses. Who are they and what have they learned?
Solutions: Experts say it is not too late to take action to mitigate the potential environmental impacts of warehouses. What can be done?
Do warehouses live up to their promised economic benefits in terms of taxes and jobs?