Burlington County saw 6.6 million square feet of warehouse approved or under construction this year — and a large portion of that was in primarily residential and agricultural communities ranging from Florence to Pemberton Township.
Not long ago, Woodlawn Avenue South residents could look out virtually any window and see thick rows of trees hugging their quiet Florence neighborhood.
Now, just months later, the views are virtually unrecognizable: To the north is a towering dirt pile; to the west, a sound wall; to the south, a low fence marking the new boundary for the land long used as a neighborhood park.
The vista is a preview of what is to become Florence Turnpike Crossings, an industrial development totaling more than 1 million square feet of warehousing and distribution that spans from the old Griffin Pipe site to the adjacent property.
Florence is just one of many Burlington County communities being rapidly transformed by industrial development, and while warehouse and distribution centers are nothing new for the county, building them outside of industrial parks, in largely residential and agricultural areas is a significant shift.
The transition began about three years ago, when companies under pressure to find new distribution space found a solution in Burlington County’s numerous tracts of undeveloped land and convenient highway access.
From 2014 through 2018, countywide, building permits were issued for more than 12.4 million square feet of new warehouse development, a nearly tenfold increase from the previous five-year period.
This year, at least 16 warehouses, totaling 6.6 million square feet, received approval or broke ground, according to public records. Three of the largest projects — which span from Bordentown to Pemberton to Westampton — were built on properties zoned fully or partially for agriculture.
Other ongoing warehouse projects are proceeding more slowly but are pushing warehouses out of defined industrial parks to properties in primarily commercial areas that have easy access to roads including Interstate 295, U.S. Route 130 and the NJ Turnpike.
The project with perhaps the largest potential effect is at the site of the former Burlington Center in Burlington Township, which would bring extensive development, including significant warehouse space, to the former shopping mall and surrounding vacant land.
Municipal officials say these industrial developments force them to make hard choices: Should they embrace higher ratables at the expense of increased traffic? Prioritize jobs over quality of life?
Florence Mayor Craig Wilkie acknowledged warehouse development on the former Griffin Pipes site is not perfect, but said it’s an improvement over blighted properties.
“Obviously we are all frustrated with the trucks, but I’m happy it will be a much better looking site and I’m pleased to get it up and running, on the (tax) rolls, working for us,” Wilkie said, adding that the property has numerous challenges, including environmental contamination.
“We could choose to work with a potential developer … or choose to do nothing,” Wilkie said.
Burlington Township Mayor Brian Carlin said warehouses are simply a reality in the current business landscape.
“Do I want them all done? No. But we have to deal with the fact that this is the 21st century economy,” Carlin said.
Many elected officials also say they are limited in controlling these development projects.
But in some cases that is not the whole story.
In Florence and Bordentown Township, officials were offered choices to regulate warehouse development near neighborhoods, but did not follow through.
In Florence, elected officials on at least two occasions had the opportunity to shield Woodlawn and the surrounding neighborhoods from industrial encroachment, but chose not to.
In Bordentown, following the development of two massive warehouses adjacent to large neighborhoods, officials said they would update the master plan to better protect residents. But to date, they do not appear to have done so.
A little over four years ago in Bordentown, one of Burlington County’s largest warehouses — the 1.3 million-square-foot Grainger Distribution Center — opened about 130 feet from a large subdivision.
This year, it happened again — this time with the 569,000-square-foot Matrix warehouse and distribution under construction near the intersection of Georgetown and Old York roads.
From 2014 to 2018, the most recent available data, Bordentown Township saw building permits approved for more than 2.6 million square feet of warehouses. In the previous five-year time period, 2009-2013, no building permits were issued for warehouses.
The increased development has improved the tax roll, and this year the Grainger center alone is expected to pay $628,800 in property taxes.
In the wake of this warehouse boom, Mayor Steve Benowitz promised local government would do more to protect residents.
“The township is undergoing a review and update to the land use (zoning) element to our master plan,” Benowitz said in an email earlier this year. “The goal is to foster smart commercial growth while maintaining or increasing the quality of life for our residents. Our township planning professional are working to ensure that historically established zoning such as the situation that enable the Matrix warehouse, are amended to safeguard against this occurring in the future.”
Last week, Township Administrator Michael Theokas said the township still was working toward that goal.
“Some of those recommendations include some zoning changes to clarify industrial (aka warehouse) uses. While we can’t completely eliminate this particular use, we can limit it to certain zones with certain standards within those zones,” Theokas said in an email.
And yet the changes to the township’s circulation and land use plans, which received planning board approval last week, lack the promised specificity.
The land use plan, for example, noted that “residential and industrial uses are not typically compatible” but then failed to provide a solution.
Bordentown resident John Dourgarian said he was appalled by the land use plan.
“I honestly do not see this plan changing anything, nor does it address warehouses,” said Dourgarian, who lives near Matrix and had been an advocate for warehouse regulation. “I feel as if it has been written by developers.”
Zoning still exists that would allow warehouses to use local roads, rather than requiring direct access to the state highway system, Dourgarian said, about his reading of the documents.
It’s crucial Bordentown protect neighborhood roads, according to Dourgarian.
The longtime resident said his housing development has had two water main breaks this year. In the previous 23 years there was never a water main break, he said.
“I believe these breaks are due to the trucks and are not coincidental,” he said. “Local officials will tell you otherwise, but they are wrong.”
Noreen Cardinali, a resident of the Clifton Mill neighborhood, which sits adjacent to the Matrix warehouse, described the updated plans as “a good draft” but questioned whether they would be effective.
“Sometimes it was very specific and other times very vague,” Cardinali said. “It read like one person wrote the problems and someone else wrote the solutions, and they never talked to each other.”
Both Dourgarian and Cardinali said they were disappointed in what they said was a lack of transparency by the township.
Local officials are well aware “we’ve been waiting for this,” Cardinali said, but residents never received notice that the planning board had voted.
Benowitz did not respond to a request for comment.
Eleven years ago during a master plan re-examination, the township’s planner warned officials that current zoning could allow industrial development next to the Woodlawn Avenue neighborhood.
The 156-acre area in northwest Florence, bordered approximately by the the Griffin Pipe industrial facility to the north and the township municipal utilities authority to the west, had recently been subdivided to allow new, single-family residential construction.
The land also contained a 24-acre former landfill which had been capped in accordance with NJ DEP standards, according to the township.
Of the remaining 53 acres, about half the site was zoned for residential development. The remainder was zoned for special manufacturing but was split by the residential development, leaving two smaller tracts of industrially zoned land.
Because the manufacturing zone was sandwiched between the turnpike and residential development and was adjacent to a park, the township should reconsider the industrial zoning, according to the planner. The land would be more appropriate for research/office park zoning, which would allow for research and analytical laboratories.
But that recommendation was never implemented. Local officials instead argued there was no appetite for office development, and proceeded with industrial plans, ignoring the quality of life concerns raised in the master plan re-examination.
Wilkie, however, said the reality of the property is more complex.
“We have to understand the whole picture,” Wilkie said, “In the mid 1800s there was pipe foundry and unfortunately it closed around 2009 or 2010 and put 250 people out of work and left the site contaminated and under DEP regulations.”
Wilkie also said the township reached out to neighbors to address their concerns.
Black Creek Group, the project developer, described neighborhood outreach on the project as extensive.
“Understanding the importance to communicate and work with nearby residents we held several neighborhood group meetings in Florence Township. For those meetings we circulated invitations not only to those on our formal notice list, but to surrounding residential developments and through the township offices,” Dave Fazekas, senior managing director and co-chief investment officer – industrial and head of the eastern region, said in an email.
The goal was “not only explaining the plan for the property but listening to residents’ concerns,” Fazekas said.
As a result, Black Creek modified plans to include two sound walls which also will block truck headlights at night; active dust control measures; and additional landscaping and irrigation along the roadway and residential lines.
At this point, it’s impossible to say how many vehicle trips will be added to the road, according to Fazeaks.
“It ultimately depends on the end user tenant, however, this project’s traffic will replace traffic that existed with the prior use,” Fazekas said about the former Griffin Pipes facility. “We feel confident that we have taken the necessary steps to mitigate the impact on the neighborhood such as the implementation of the driveway design forces truck traffic away from the residential and downtown areas and towards the highway interchanges.”
“While we understand the concern surrounding additional traffic that may occur, we are very excited to be bringing in jobs back to the area,” he said, adding that Black Creek is working with the county on road improvement projects.
Black Creek Group’s agreement with the township requires that land be donated to the township for buffers, preservation and recreation, and that Black Creek will redevelop old rail lines to bike trails through portions of the township.
As warehouses continue to develop, a key to mitigating their effects — wherever they are located — will be improved connectivity and roadway design, according to local officials, including Burlington Township Mayor Brian Carlin.
About three years ago, when warehouse development started to increase, Burlington City, Burlington Township and Florence sat down to form a working group and look at the Route 130 corridor and find intersections that needed to be addressed, as to prevent bumper-to-bumper truck traffics, particularly on local roads, according to Carlin.
“We worked together and prioritized certain spots,” and tried to figure out how decisions in one municipality could impact the others, he said.
Since then, the working group has seen successes, such as Bordentown Township’s receipt of $2.1 million in state funding for a connector road between Rising Sun and Dunns Mill Road.
The connector road is expected to improve congestion at the Route 130 intersections with Farnsworth Avenue and Dunns Mill Road.
As warehouses become Burlington County’s new reality, improving roads and connectivity is the best thing local governments can do, according to Carlin.
“We are dealing with a 1960s roadway system with limited ability to improve it,” Carlin said. “We’re not going to make traffic go away but we can try to make sure people get in and out as safely as possible.”