Warehouse proliferation is a growing national problem threatening the quality of life and wellbeing of communities in several states, including New Jersey. Fortunately here, in our state, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Senator Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) are determined to address the problem. After their initial bill failed to gain legislative assent, they proposed a second, S3688. It has received committee approval and advances, now, to the full Senate.
As the Senate prepares to weigh in, though, it makes sense to consider adding some steps to improve the siting process, particularly to manage conflicts that are likely to surface in order to lead to effective, and potentially creative, results.
Senator Singleton seems open to the idea: “If we continue to just chase dollars from community to community, we are harming our state by not … thinking through a real regional planning exercise so that we can move our state forward...”
The bill’s sponsors recognize the need to weigh certain factors other than the desire to generate tax revenue and create jobs. They are mandating consideration of impacts — land use, traffic, environmental, economic, fiscal, and social equity effects — that extend beyond the boundaries of a given municipality in which a warehouse is being proposed before approval can be given.
Local governments are already resisting what they see as an erosion of their authority. It need not be that at all. Indeed, local governments may gain a greater role in helping to determine their region’s destiny.
The bill provides that if approval is withheld by potentially affected municipalities, an appointed county board makes the decision; if that decision is appealed, however, a final determination is made by a state board.
Since conflict is likely, it is important to anticipate how to manage it. The steps delineated in the bill are formal and adversarial; potentially critical steps to support constructive negotiations are missing.
Why not provide for facilitation and mediation to help parties reach solutions? The Department of Community Affairs, where responsibility for administration rests, could maintain a roster of neutral third parties to provide help to municipalities and counties, much as courts and other agencies do to maximize the prospect of negotiated results for parties in conflict rather than the usual win/lose outcomes that come from adversarial proceedings, including litigation.
Many planners have received negotiation training and have the skills and understanding of context to provide the assistance needed here. And others, trained and experienced in mediation, already offer their assistance in public and private settings. Another option is to tap into the resources of non-profits and academic institutions that frequently offer third-party assistance in policy and planning domains.
We need structures to support cooperation because the concerns relating to clean air, safe water, and open space that are presented by warehouses and other developments, rarely align with existing political jurisdictions; as with many infrastructure needs as well, they cross borders.
The objective is to reach solutions that maximize public benefit and conflict can often present opportunities. In working out a potential agreement on a warehouse, for example, municipalities may add operational conditions to reduce the negative impacts of warehouses (e.g. traffic patterns; reclamation), and they may find common ground for meeting other municipal and regional needs, say preserving or providing land for recreation, and sharing revenues to mitigate costs.
Warehouses are only one piece of a larger problem but they present a significant challenge and the state should move fast to deal with them.
In raising the regional impact issue of warehouses, Senators Sweeney and Singleton have created an opportunity for municipalities to come together to plan for their future. At the same time, they are leading the state in the direction of more resilient — effective and responsive — governance. They need to go beyond warehouses, however, and provide assistance to support broad, regional planning.
Why not include Big Box stores and other projects that may have impacts beyond the municipality where the project is proposed, and that, without consideration, neighboring municipalities may see only as imposing costs while providing no benefits? It’s an obvious question as we have been living with LuLu (locally unwanted land use) and Nimby (not in my backyard) for some time.
Other siting challenges are not reflected in the pending bill, but with the passage of S3688, we’ll have experience with siting warehouses so the state can broaden the scope in subsequent legislation.
The pandemic exposed deep-seated flaws in governance, particularly when states competed across borders and made unilateral decisions that exacerbated conflict among them. They learned the value of regional cooperation soon enough. So can counties and municipalities.
We can even think more broadly to embrace a regional approach for public investment, say in infrastructure, to provide benefit beyond a given municipality’s borders, as Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark suggested recently.
Indeed, Mayor Baraka implored cities and counties to “find the strength to implement real solutions to the governance challenges of our day by working together.” But, the state needs to provide the framework to encourage and support regional cooperation. The legislation on warehouse proliferation is a good starting point.