More warehouses are taking over NJ farms — Could laws stop them?
TRENTON – State lawmakers are developing a bill to address the loss of farms to warehouse development, though it appears unlikely to advance quickly and its ambition isn’t yet clear.
The Assembly agriculture committee heard testimony on the topic for approximately two hours Wednesday, and despite the panel’s focus on farms, chairman Assemblyman Roy Freiman said his intention is to find a way for agriculture to collaborate with warehouses and a need for growth.
The committee next meets on Dec. 12. Freiman said it may talk about draft legislation that day.
“We’re not forcing anything forward on an accelerated basis,” said Freiman, D-Somerset. “But yet we also don’t want to remain idle if there’s action that should be taken. So, we’re looking at both of those together.”
Nearly one in eight jobs in the state are in the wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing sector. The State Planning Commission in September adopted guidance that towns can follow when handling warehouse growth, but those suggestions aren’t mandatory.
Ed Wengryn, a research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said farmers in Warren, Salem and Gloucester looked at the loss in farmland in southern Middlesex County as something that wouldn’t get to their more remote areas of the state.
“’We’re going to have that kind of development? Nah, nah, that’s the Turnpike,’” Wengryn said. “They never thought it would get to them. And it did. It got there faster than they all thought.”
Wengryn said farmers sometimes sell to developers because the state’s offers for land preservation are too low. And he said perhaps preservation efforts need to be focused on the best agricultural lands but that development should go forward on more marginal soils.
Devin Cornia, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, said another problem with the farmland preservation program is that smaller farms don’t qualify. He said there should be moratorium on new warehouse approvals until there is a shift to regional planning.
“I’d like to ask what our values are as a state,” Cornia said. “I appreciate that you brought up that New Jersey is the Garden State, and sometimes I feel that we do experience the paving over of our agricultural values, our community values, in favor of business growth.”
Ray Cantor, deputy chief government affairs officer for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said if remediation or getting approvals in what are now called environmental justice communities is difficult, developers will look elsewhere – sometimes, to farmland.
He said that “of course” some warehouse development needs to be on agricultural land.
“While we do support redevelopment on brownfields and filling in some of the vacant lands in urban areas, not all warehousing should go there or could go there, and it’s not appropriate that it go there,” Cantor said.
To a degree, Cantor found common ground on that issue with Allison McLeod, public policy director for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.
McLeod was generally critical of the impact of warehouses but also said the state also can’t just keep piling warehouses into urban areas that have long been dumping grounds for projects not wanted elsewhere.
“We don’t believe that the answer is to just site all the warehouses in communities that are already disproportionately impacted by pollution and air pollution and are historically overburdened,” McLeod said. “We don’t think that’s a viable long-term solution either.”
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