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  • Writer's pictureAndre Watson

National Debate Over Big Warehouses in Small Towns Spills Over in New Jersey

Litigation, Packed Hearing Are Emblematic of Concerns as E-Commerce Expands

Opponents of an industrial development planned for Mullica Hill, New Jersey, turned out in force at a hearing on the project. The room was so packed that the hearing was delayed and is now slated to be held in a bigger venue next week. (Shelly Orlacchio)

Battles between concerned residents and warehouse developers have become increasingly common all over the country. And in New Jersey, so many opponents of a proposed distribution hub packed a hearing that the session is being rescheduled.

The concern over Russo Development's 2.1 million-square-foot project, slated for a roughly 160-acre site along Route 322 in Gloucester County — a rural area not far from Philadelphia — has been brewing and making area headlines for several weeks now. The Casella Farms Homeowners Association, representing those who live in a residential complex adjacent to the proposed industrial property, have already filed suit against Harrison Mayor Lou Manzo and the Township Committee to stop the project. Manzo didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

The flare-up is new, but this type of standoff has occurred again and again as real estate developers seek out space to build the distribution centers that help fulfill ever-increasing online orders to consumers. Some towns in places such as California have put temporary building moratoriums in place.

Those who live in bucolic locales such as Mullica Hill, the section of Harrison Township where Russo Developments venture is planned, say that the four proposed warehouses will destroy the charm of the town — the very quaint surroundings that they sought out when they moved there — creating traffic, noise and pollution.

Carlstadt, New Jersey-based Russo Development, a family company that made its name doing industrial development in North Jersey's Meadowlands, defended its project. It said it is well within its rights under local zoning law to build in Mullica Hill, that the location is appropriate and that the complex will be built and operated responsibly.

So-called warehouse sprawl has especially been a hot-button issue in the Garden State, which because of its location between New York City and Philadelphia, high population density and access to major airports and seaports has made it a popular logistics hub. And there is limited space left unclaimed in the northern part of the state to add any new warehouses, forcing developers to go south to find sites.

A rendering depicts part of the four-building warehouse project that Russo Development has proposed for Mullica Hill in New Jersey. (Russo Development)

Industrial development has also faced pushback in California, which like New Jersey has seen a surge of such projects. Several cities in Southern California’s Inland Empire earlier this year took action to try to curb development.

Freezing Warehouse Construction

City officials in Norco, for instance, enacted a 45-day moratorium on the construction of warehouses and other industrial facilities, and Pomona officials extended a similar existing freeze for another 10 months. Those moves followed pauses enacted or reviewed in the past few years by other cities in the busy region east of Los Angeles, including Riverside, Redlands, Chino and Colton.

And the California Legislature considered a measure that would have required developers to build warehouses at least 1,000 feet from houses, apartments and other “sensitive uses” in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But that bill failed to advance out of committee in the state Senate.

Late last week in New Jersey, the Harrison Land Use Board was slated to vote on final approval for Russo Development's project, which would be built under the township's King's Landing redevelopment plan. But so many protesters packed the Dec. 1 hearing that local officials changed it to a larger venue Dec. 15.

In a statement, the Casella Farms Homeowners Association said its lawsuit contends that the township's redevelopment plan should be set aside and invalidated on several grounds and therefore Russo's pending application prohibited from proceeding. The 10-page legal complaint, filed on behalf of the group by the law firm of Baron & Brennan, claims the mayor and township committee adopted the plan to "facilitate an industrial-scale warehouse development immediately adjacent to our residential community."

In its statement, the homeowner's association said it "is committed to protecting the health, safety, and quality of life of its residents and neighbors in Mullica Hill and surrounding townships, which would be negatively impacted by the pollution, traffic, noise and related disturbances that such a massive warehouse complex would cause this rural, family-oriented community."

While some residents said they were blindsided when they learned of the project's pending approval, the developer said it has been in the works for some time now.

Job and Tax Benefits

"We are disappointed that we did not receive expected approvals for the as-of-right development plan for our property that straddles the Woolwich-Harrison boundary on Route 322 just off Exit 2 of the New Jersey Turnpike," Russo Development said in a statement.

"This property has been zoned commercial/industrial for many years and the redevelopment plan in place for the property permitting the proposed development was approved by the township following the proper procedures. We believe the project is appropriate given its location right off the interchange and will be developed in a responsible manner that will benefit the municipality through its job creation and tax revenues generated with minimal impact to municipal services."

The lawsuit claims that the King's Landing redevelopment plan is contrary to the township's master plan, which states that its goal is to "reflect the development determinations of the municipality seeing to preserve it cultural heritage and retain its traditional agricultural/rural character while integrating a suburban style of development that lends itself to the creation of a community."

The mayor two years ago, in a YouTube video, told residents the township would never allow warehouses to be built with abandon, like its neighbor Logan Township, just to get tax ratables, according to the lawsuit.

The protesters in Mullica Hill said they have formed the South Jersey Responsible Development Coalition to band together with residents in other municipalities that are fighting warehouse construction.

Critics of New Jersey warehouse development and several lawmakers tried, and failed, nearly two years ago to have the state put strict controls on construction. In a compromise earlier this year, the state issued a set of guidelines to help towns control and accurately weigh distribution center proposals.

Russo Development has another massive industrial development in the works, in partnership with Forsgate Industrial Partners of Teterboro, New Jersey. They are working on Kingsland Meadowlands, a 718-acre development in North Jersey where they plan to build more than 3 million square feet of industrial space.

Russo Development has also been doing a vast amount of multifamily projects under the brand name Vermella and other monikers.

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