New Jersey warehouse developer unexpectedly seeks to preserve property as farmland
| November 2, 2023
A bitter four-year fight against a mammoth warehouse project in a rural New Jersey community appears to have unexpectedly ended with the developer announcing that he is negotiating with the state to preserve the land for agricultural purposes.
The U-turn was announced at a planning board meeting in White Township in Warren County on Wednesday night, sparking a euphoric eruption of tears, cheers and hugging among activists who had steadfastly fought the proposal.
“It was just incredible,” said Tom Bodolsky, vice president of Citizens for Sustainable Development, the lead opposition group.
While it might not have been the oldest or biggest warehouse proposed in the Delaware River watershed in New Jersey, the so-called Jaindl project was certainly one of the most high profile.
The project, of more than 2.6 million square feet on 600 acres, spotlighted Warren County as an epicenter for warehouse and logistics space development. Delaware Currents reported that the county had more than 13 million square feet of warehouse space in the planning pipeline as of early this year.
The Jaindl project also fits a much larger trend of intense warehouse development throughout New Jersey, which has been driven to some degree by changes in consumer shopping habits as a result of the Covid pandemic, experts said.
But more broadly, the demand for warehouse and distribution space near major transportation hubs and highways has been fueled by shifts in global trade and economics, an increasingly more expensive real estate market in the Lehigh Valley across the river in Pennsylvania, and a dearth of staging areas near the ports run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which are among the busiest in the country.
Delaware Currents has previously reported that nearly 150 warehouse projects totaling 88 million square feet are in the planning stages or been recently approved in the 14 counties of New Jersey that make up the Delaware River watershed.
Farmland preservation plan will take time
In White Township, the announcement that the land would be preserved as farmland is not yet a done deal and may take many months.
Fred Stine, a community action coordinator for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, noted that the transaction won’t be entirely tidy, pointing to two residential properties on the land as well as a solar farm tract and a cell tower that will have to be carved out from the land to be preserved.
Still, he said, “this was clearly a big win.”
Anthony J. Sposaro, a lawyer for the developer, said the owner would get a “handsome return” on the sale of the property, which the state plans to buy outright for preservation. The terms of the sale have not been made public.
Sposaro described the acreage to be preserved (about 575 acres) as “beautiful pristine agriculture land.” He expressed confidence that the deal would go through.
“The state very much wants this to happen,” he said. “The human resources they have dedicated to put this deal together is absolutely extraordinary. It’s a very, very, very high priority for them.”
“This is a big win for agriculture, White Township and Warren County,” said Joe Atchison, assistant secretary of agriculture. “We are very pleased the State Agriculture Development Committee was able to come to an agreement with the landowner to protect this important property. We look forward to acquiring the property, preserving it, and then offering it back to the agricultural community as preserved farmland through a farm auction to be held in the near future.”
Fears of losing rural character drove opponents
With parking for 1,500 cars, 914 storage spaces for tractor-trailers and 541 loading docks, the proposed project was a “game-changer,” Bodolsky said.
But its sheer size and ambition roused opponents.
“We were nobody,” Bodolsky recalled. “But we all shared a profound appreciation of our environment and what Warren County life is like. There is nothing like it in New Jersey left. We were not about to sacrifice it.”
Stine shared a similar sentiment. Had the project been successful, it could have paved the way for others like it in the rural community.
“Next thing you know, you are no longer living in agricultural White Township,” Stine said. “You’re suddenly in Cherry Hill or Scranton.”
In addition to concerns about traffic along the two-lane rural road leading to the site and what induced impacts would follow, the project would have been about 150 yards as the crow flies from the Delaware River, Stine said.
The site primarily has a Karst formation — a layer of soluble limestone that helps spread and slow the infiltration of precipitation ultimately into the river.
The project, however, would have introduced stormwater berms and swales that would have allowed for a collection of rushing water into the river, which, in turn, could lead to greater sedimentation and the capture of contaminants from the project’s impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, Stine said.
Orange shirts and packed meetings
While he credited the persistent community opposition, Stine said other outside factors — such as rising interest rates, a slowing economy and a potentially saturated warehouse market — with leading to the announcement on Wednesday night.
Bodolsky said activists regularly packed planning board hearings, sometimes with as many as 200 people at a time, wearing distinctive orange shirts.
The idea for the shirts was inspired by demonstrators known as “Yellow Jackets” for their bright fluorescent vests and shirts, who several years ago took to the streets of France to protest economic reforms.
The bright orange shirts helped bond warehouse activists and send a united message, Bodolsky said.
Opponents said potential economic benefits of warehouses, such as an increased property tax base, are outweighed by environmental harms or other financial impacts a community must absorb, such as higher infrastructure maintenance costs and increased public safety demands.
“Once the people take a true unbiased look at it, warehouses are not the way to go here,” Bodolsky said.
Whether the success in White Township was an isolated one-off or possibly the start of a broader trend is uncertain.
“I hope this is, in fact, the model to demonstrate the benefits of grassroots opposition,” Bodolsky said. “The other grassroots groups need to continue their opposition. They need to band together.”