NJ Policy on Warehouses

It’s not too late to remedy warehouse impacts in New Jersey, experts say

| May 16, 2023

Ask Ben Spinelli, the executive director of the Highlands Council, a New Jersey regional planning group, whether there are still ways to mitigate the effects of a boom in warehouse construction in the state.

“It depends on what day you catch me,” he said with a laugh. “If I didn’t believe there was something we could do, I wouldn’t be in this job.”

Spinelli is among the planners, researchers and warehouse activists who say it’s not too late to find ways to reduce the impacts of the mammoth buildings rising up across New Jersey – a trend that has prompted the Garden State to be referred to as the Logistics State. 

As Delaware Currents has previously reported, since 2021 alone, 88 million square feet of warehouses in the Delaware River watershed in New Jersey have been approved, built or are in the planning stages.

That conservative figure is a snapshot of what’s potentially coming to all or parts of 14 counties and does not account for warehouse construction before 2021 or in areas outside of the watershed.

Warehouses in the watershed have an outsized impact because of the potential effects the buildings have on increasing water pollution and the speed of runoff, among other environmental impacts, on an area that serves as a drinking water supply for millions.

Read more: How 88 million square feet of warehouses could affect the watershed

Spinelli said now that the issue is widely recognized, planners and approvers need to think not only about the location and placement of warehouses but also their quality and design: What kinds of buffers do they have? Do their roofs have solar panels? What are the stormwater systems like? 

Considering the long-term consequences of decisions made today is critical, he said.

“Municipal officials are looking at the tax bills for the next year,” Spinelli said. “They’re not looking at a 25- or 50-year horizon.”

Map of New Jersey watershed
Map of New Jersey watershed

Highlands Council and New Jersey offer guidance

In many towns, local zoning allows warehouses as-of-right, meaning a developer does not need to go through a lengthy variance process and can simply seek planning board approval. That makes it very difficult to deny an application if it fits with the current zoning and land-use designation.

In a 48-page document with guidance about warehouse siting released in September, the New Jersey State Planning Commission described the need for “a whole-of-government approach” to the issue, with an emphasis on bridging the gap between local and regional land use and transportation planning.

An indication of how hungry residents and local officials are for help in dealing with warehouses surfaced in a webinar in January. Donna Rendeiro, the executive director of the State Planning Commission’s Office of Planning Advocacy, said that the warehouse guidance document was one of the most “attention-getting” projects her agency had ever worked on.

The Highlands Council is also working on guidelines specific to the New Jersey Highlands, with suggestions about, among other things, where to build and where to avoid building. 

Read more: As new Highlands Council chief, Ben Spinelli seeks to build coalitions.

While the proliferation of warehouses is a matter of statewide concern, it has particular ramifications in the Highlands because of the potential impacts on resources, such as prime agricultural soils, groundwater recharge areas and critical habitat.

The New Jersey Highlands, which includes parts of seven northwestern counties, is a unique area of forest, farms and scenic resources that is the source of drinking water to more than 6 million people in the state.

The council is offering a grant of up to $5,000 per municipality to help localities review their current zoning.

“An assessment of current zoning will help identify any deficiencies or issues that could lead to inappropriate, unintended, or unwanted development, as well as areas that are better suited for development and redevelopment within a community,” the council said. 

Get involved early and often

For those who are not planning professionals, experts and activists offered this refrain: Do your homework and be an engaged citizen and taxpayer. 

“Talk to your representatives,” Lee Clark, a councilman in Phillipsburg, said at a webinar about warehouses in March. “Email them. Ask them questions. Share with them your concerns.”

The problem is that many local ordinances are “woefully unprepared” to keep up with the “sheer scale and intensity” of modern warehouses compared to the ones of decades ago, Matthew Blake, a senior area planner with the State Planning Commission, said in the January webinar.

Residents should specifically look at their community’s zoning and master plans. Do the documents reflect the community’s current needs and conditions? Are they outdated? 

“Don’t wait until the eleventh hour,” Rendeiro said. 

Read more: How did the ‘Amazonification’ of New Jersey happen?

Wayne Wagner Jr., an activist with Stop Auburn Road Warehouses in Salem County, described a municipality’s master plan as “a prenup” that outlines what kind of development can go where. 

If your locality does not have one or has one that is outdated, “press your elected leaders to get one done – now,” he said. 

“My advice is, start the conversation before there is an immediate fight,” he added. 

Some localities have imposed a temporary pause on warehouse development to buy time to revise and update their zoning. Amy Hansen, policy manager at the New Jersey Conversation Foundation, said imposing such a moratorium is a good interim tool “if you can do it without getting sued.”

Regional cooperation is key

Blake said that “a lot of time we chase the rateables, looking at the shiny object of all the revenues without really considering” how municipal services will be affected in the long term.

Among the long-term considerations is what happens when warehouses outlive their usefulness or consumer trends change and they become obsolete. 

Tim Brill, the Central Jersey project manager for New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said there’s been discussion among members of a study group about requiring warehouse developers to offer closure or decommissioning plans.

As these buildings can go up – and down – fairly readily, they can conceivably be redeveloped fairly inexpensively, he said. It’s possible they could be converted to office space or housing. That said, Brill added, it’s unlikely the sites would ever be restored to forest or farmland.

Read more: New Jersey warehouse opponents create a new coalition

Echoing another theme among planners and experts, Blake called for greater regional planning and cooperation.

“If impacts are regional, then planning should be as well,” he said. “Given the undeniable importance of warehousing as well as the undeniable significance of the types of impacts that we’re seeing given the rapid proliferation of warehouses, it’s really important that communities start working together.”

Katrina McCarthy, GeoLab research project manager at Rowan University, said in a presentation last year that “more trucks, impervious surface, artificial lighting, wider roads, and monolithic warehouses have been the trend thus far.” 

“If left unabated,” she added, “the short-sighted decisions of 564 independent municipalities will destroy what is left of New Jersey’s limited available landscapes.” 

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

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