Warehouses in Phillipsburg, N.J.
Warehouses in Phillipsburg, N.J. , dominate the landscape. Photo by Keith R. Stevenson/SAVImaging.com

Model zoning rules: A community tool to cope with warehouses before it’s too late

| September 13, 2023

Communities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania whose inadequate zoning and planning rules left them flat-footed coping with an explosive growth of warehouses in the Delaware River watershed may now have a new tool at their disposal.

The tool, model ordinances that can address the specific issues surrounding warehouses and that can be shaped to suit a locality’s needs, can be a “jumping-off point,” said Brigitte Meyer, a staff attorney at PennFuture, an environmental advocacy organization.

The ordinances can save time and effort for municipal officials, many of whom work part time and who may lack the expertise to deal with the complications of warehouse zoning.

“Model ordinances can also serve to highlight issues that municipal officials may not have thought of because their municipality has not yet dealt with a particular issue,” Meyer said. “They are a way to take the experience of many different municipalities and combine them into one document.”

Meyer is the author of a recent model ordinance for Pennsylvania municipalities, in which she outlines what zoning laws should have before applications for warehouses arrive.

The model ordinance notes that previous ordinances “fail to adequately address these new logistics uses and the impacts that come with them.” 

Read more: How the growth of warehouses threatens water quality in the Lehigh Valley

The Pennsylvania model also advises municipalities to “proactively plan for these forms of development,” a sentiment shared by Ben Spinelli, the executive director of the Highlands Council, a New Jersey regional planning group.

Warehouses: Built by “opportunity, not planning”

Spinelli said many towns continue to approve warehouses despite the problems that may follow because it looks like a “quick fix for their budget.” 

But once officials recognize the possible impact warehouses have on traffic, stormwater and the character of their community, “they find themselves confronted with these applications” and think, “‘We’ve got to do something’ and didn’t come to the realization until it was actually occurring.” 

Such an approach is something that should have been anticipated “because what we’ve got is warehousing being built by opportunity, and not by planning,” he said.

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

That conservative figure is a snapshot of what’s potentially coming to all or parts of 14 counties in New Jersey 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.

Ordinances are a way to be proactive

While model ordinances may be reviewed and adjusted by local governing bodies, “one of the best ways for model ordinances to come before municipal officials is through community members and groups, who can advocate for the ordinance throughout the process,” Meyer said.

This is evident in White Township, a rural community in New Jersey, where a project expected to encompass 2.8 million square feet in two warehouses has been contested by residents for more than four years. Citizens for Sustainable Development, a community group opposing the project, has maintained that warehouses like these across New Jersey have harmed communities’ quality of life. 

“These two giant warehouses are proposed to be built right on Route 519, which is a two-lane county road approximately 10 miles in either direction to Route 78 and Route 80, so consider that massive increase in truck traffic on EMT, fire and other emergency services and on school buses to the three elementary schools on the route, etc.,” said Sarah Hare, who is part of the opposition group. “The impact will be negatively life-changing for residents.”

Once building plans are proposed, developers can sue a municipality if their plan is denied but if it in fact adheres to requirements already set in zoning rules, said Lia Mastropolo, director of clean water supply at American Rivers, an advocacy group focused on the protection and restoration of rivers.

Typically, Mastropolo said, a developer will buy a property but not build right away. Ordinances in place at the time of purchase “might influence their decision to buy,” she said.

A municipality “can’t reflexively” update its zoning laws in response to a high volume of building applications, Mastropolo said, adding that being proactive about zoning and imposing limits on where development can occur — before applications are received — is “really important.”

Meyer from PennFuture said “model ordinances can be very effective,” but implementation depends on factors “like the individual municipality’s priorities, political will and municipal officials’ capacity.”

“What we have seen with our model ordinances is that municipalities in areas where logistics development is already occurring are more interested in figuring out how to address it,” she said.

Grants available to help but few takers

The Highlands Council in New Jersey is offering grants to help localities update their zoning to avoid issues like those in White Township.

The grants, of up to $5,000 per municipality, can be used to review current zoning laws and identify where warehouses should and should not be developed. 

“Towns never dreamed in a million years that they were zoning for a warehouse until the warehouse application actually shows up, and so we made those grants available,” Spinelli said.

But Spinelli said the council has received “very limited response” to the grant offerings, and gotten only one full-fledged application, from Hope Township. 

The grants were not made available until last fall as the council was “reacting to the trends that we saw, and we tried to do it in a way that would have an impact so that we could catch up and get ahead of the issue,” he said.

The goal overall, he added, is “protecting the state’s water supply,” the “unique resources of the Highlands Region,” and to ensure warehouse development isn’t “compromising the ability of the region to support the state’s population as a whole.”

Susanna Granieri

Susanna Granieri

Susanna Granieri received her M.S. degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and her B.A. in journalism and digital media production from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She's written for the Legislative Gazette, an Albany-based newspaper focused on legislation, policy and politics; covered Alzheimer's, dementia and brain health for Being Patient; worked as an Immersion Fellow at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting where she investigated the use of faulty forensic science in death penalty convictions; and currently is a staff writer at First Amendment Watch, a project at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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