State urges towns to make more educated decisions on warehouse projects

JON HURDLE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER | JUNE 14, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

Aug. 1, 2017, an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville Township, N.J.

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Towns in New Jersey for the first time now have specific state guidelines on where they should allow warehouses to be built as more towns are facing increased pressures to build these massive commercial developments.

The guidelines come after arguments by planners and land-use advocates that only a regional policy can begin to control a current boom in the giant buildings. While these guidelines do not have the force of law, or change any existing laws, they are intended to ensure local officials take into account a full range of effects that warehouses may have on their towns and beyond.

And as many residents are protesting at town meetings and challenging warehouse development plans in court, community input is crucial, the state said in releasing these new guidelines on Friday.

“Critical to this planning is the inclusion of community voices from our urban communities that have been fighting for better air quality and less truck traffic for years,” it said.

The guidelines from state planners recognized the surging demand for warehouse space that has affected many New Jersey communities in recent years, reflecting a boom in online shopping, the state’s position at the heart of the populous Northeast market and its robust transportation infrastructure.

The document urged towns — which have most of the authority over where and how warehouses are built — to consider not only the economic benefits of warehouses but also their negative effects, such as traffic congestion, diesel exhaust and possible flooding from the large impervious surfaces that are created.

The boost to local tax revenues that warehouses bring should be balanced with a recognition that building them can harm the quality of life — a rallying cry for opponents in many communities, the document said.

Towns should conduct a cost-benefit analysis that would allow more informed decisions on whether to approve a warehouse project, it said.

“Asking these important questions will help ensure that a community doesn’t mistakenly focus on projected job creation, wages and tax revenue without fully understanding whether such benefits justify the potential costs in terms of municipal services, facilities, infrastructure, local businesses, and potential loss of value in surrounding real estate,” said the document, released late Friday.

Warehouse impacts

The 13-part document from the Office of Planning Advocacy — the executive branch of the State Planning Commission — said warehouse projects are already subject to some state and county controls, but recognized that most power will remain local.

Town officials should consider the project’s impact on quality of life, public health and safety during and after construction, it said.

It warned that existing zoning ordinances may be inadequate to address the pace and scale of the warehouse boom, and it said that many towns find they are vulnerable to poorly sited and scaled warehouse projects on land that’s zoned “light industrial.”

“Much of the current outcry from municipalities reviewing and approving warehouse proposals that they are unhappy with comes in cases where the projects largely conform to local zoning standards,” the guidelines said.

Zoning that simply permits generic warehousing may not be sufficient to address the different types of warehousing sought by developers, or to give a town the standards it needs to require developers to mitigate impacts, the document said.

And it said the impacts of warehouses are likely to affect overburdened communities more than others. “There’s no denying that warehouse operations serve to increase truck traffic volume which increases mobile source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions when they are located near communities already disproportionately impacted by environmental harms,” the document said.

Supply and demand

Demand for warehouse space continues to exceed supply, driving rents up and vacancy rates down, and driving more demand for land. In the first quarter of 2022, strong demand for warehousing and other kinds of industrial space in north Jersey drove up asking rents by 23% from a year earlier, the biggest increase on record, according to Newmark, a commercial real estate firm. At the same time, the vacancy rate dropped to 2.9% from 3.1% three months earlier.

Communities facing major warehouse proposals include West Windsor in Mercer County, where Bridge Development Partners wants to build seven warehouses totaling 5.5 million square feet, a project that has generated a storm of protest among local people. The town’s planning board is due to vote on whether to advance the plan on June 29.

Doreen Garelick, a West Windsor resident who opposes the plan, said the new document highlights what she called the inadequacies of the process being taken by the town’s planners and the developer.

She said West Windsor has not conducted the recommended cost-benefit analysis; has not considered impacts on nearby towns, and would pollute the air and cause traffic congestion in the community, all contrary to state guidelines.

At the New Jersey League of Municipalities, officials were still reviewing the document but welcomed it as a sign that local power over the planning process would not be diminished, said executive director Mike Cerra.

“At first glance, this guidance, taken as a whole, appears to be a positive development as it recognizes that planning should be and is done at the local level,” he said.

Planning on a larger scale

Some advocates for reform say that power over warehouse planning should be shifted toward county and state authorities and away from municipalities because the impacts go well beyond the towns where the warehouses are built.

Critics include Micah Rasmussen, a Rider University professor who led a rare successful community campaign against a warehouse plan in Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, in 2021. He praised the State Planning Commission and its staff for showing towns how to conduct a more thorough analysis of warehouse impacts, and for urging counties to get more involved.

But he said the document places no new requirements on towns, some of which he predicted will continue to approve warehouses because they boost local tax revenues.

“It’s all voluntary,” he said. “Municipalities can and will continue to be blinded by dollar signs being dangled by developers. Officials convinced they’ve finally cracked the code of how to solve local property taxes can continue to ignore residents who are urging them to look at the long-term impacts of how much industrialization is changing their community forever.”

And Jim Gilbert, former head of the State Planning Commission, said the only way to ensure that warehouse planning recognizes regional or statewide impacts is to amend the Municipal Land Use Law to require a town to cooperate with its neighbors if a warehouse project would have a major regional impact.

“Once that tripwire is crossed, a town should be mandated to enter into a process of communicating with its neighbors, getting the kind of approval that can be done through the county and in the final instance, a ruling by the Office of Planning Administration” at the state level, he said.

The home rule factor

Gilbert, who is due to chair a panel on warehouse development at this week’s New Jersey Future planning conference, said those who advocate that municipalities should give up some of their power over land use risk “getting their heads blown off” by defenders of home rule.

He welcomed the professionalism of the new report but predicted it wouldn’t do anything to offset a minority of communities that are “heedless” of their neighbors’ interests when it comes to approving big developments like warehouses.

“Those communities will zone themselves and develop tax-ratable yielding properties that don’t cost them a lot of expense on things like schools, on the perimeter of the town where they get the ratables and the neighboring town gets the transportation headaches,” he said.

But Tim Evans, director of research at New Jersey Future, argued that the guidance will educate towns on the consequences of their planning decisions and encourage them to think about what their zoning currently allows that they wouldn’t be able to stop if a developer proposes a warehouse that’s compatible with the existing ordinance.

And he said its proposal to set up county-level technical advisory committees to work with towns on warehouse plans has the potential to save local officials a lot of work in seeking the advice of regional planning groups such as the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

The idea worked in Somerset County, where officials brought together all municipalities and educated them on predicted patterns of development, Evans said.

“It’s something that the towns can look at that includes perspectives beyond their own borders,” he said.

Mike McGuinness, chief executive of the New Jersey chapter of NAIOP, a commercial real estate trade group, also recognized the dominance of home rule in discussions over planning for warehouses, and said the document may help towns that are not already using the practices it advocates. In contrast to “many” municipalities, the trade group supports regional planning, he said.

“Home rule has been the law of the land for New Jersey’s land use practices for a very long time. I guess that’s why we are having this discussion,” he said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-14 03:11:42 -0700