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Mullica Hill Rt 322 Warehouse Project Unanimously Denied. And Are New Jersey’s Public Notice Laws Outdated?

Mullica Hill Rt 322 Warehouse Project Unanimously Denied.  And Are New Jersey’s Public Notice Laws Outdated?
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A 2.1 million square foot planned multi-building warehouse project spanning across both Woolwich and Harrison Townships was denied last night by Harrison Township (Mullica Hill), in a long and sometimes raucous Joint Land Use Board meeting.

This meeting was a continuation of the approval process, which for last night was moved to a Harrison Township School auditorium so they would have the room needed to accommodate all of the residents, and also the time to allow residents to speak.

It was a very rainy night and the space was filled with several hundred residents who 99% of them appeared to be against the development. I think it’s a safe estimate to say had it not been raining, even the larger auditorium space would have overflowed.

In almost 3 hours of community comments only one person stated they wanted the warehouses approved. He was the very first speaker and stated his father was the one who initially defined the land as a commercial region.

The final JLUB vote did not take place until after 11pm, and it seemed that every resident was still in attendance at that time waiting to hear the outcome.

Over the fall the project had quickly become the most important topic in the town… as is the case in other communities for warehouse projects within their towns.

In fact, in a related but separate article at 42Freeway, I recently analyzed the last 12 months of warehouse projects for Gloucester and Salem counties and identified 42 projects consisting of over 70 buildings and 30+ million square feet of warehouse space. TWELVE MONTHS! You can read that article here, and Part 2 (which will give more details) is almost ready to publish.

Harrison Township Joint Land Use Board Meeting for a Rt 322 Warehouse Project

Russo Development – 4 Warehouses and 2.1 million square feet.

42Freeway first brought the story to readers back in October, and at that time the developer Russo had already been granted an approval by Woolwich Township.

It’s a unique development in that 2 of the 4 proposed buildings would rest entirely in Woolwich, but the other two buildings have the property line of Woolwich and Harrison going directly through buildings (as indicated by the red line below)

Warehouse project for Harrison/Woolwich Twp to total 2.1 million sq ft
Warehouse project for Harrison/Woolwich Twp to total 2.1 million sq ft

To full develop the property, the developer would need an approval from both Townships. It’s unclear to me at this time if they could still move forward with just the first two Woolwich buildings which would sit 100% in that township.

With Route 322 dividing the project North and South, there were 3 buildings planned for south of Route 322, and the largest building planned to the North.

The Route 322 corridor is very quickly being transformed into “warehouse row” as one resident called it. What was just a few years ago quiet farmland, has gained the attention of developers due to the roadway’s access to both Route 295, Exit 2 of the NJ Turnpike, the Commodore Barry Bridge… coupled with the availability of undeveloped and inexpensive farmland.

Warehouse project for Harrison/Woolwich Twp to total 2.1 million sq ft
Warehouse project for Harrison/Woolwich Twp to total 2.1 million sq ft

Harrison Township JLUB Meeting

As mentioned there was a prior meeting where it seems the developer gave their core project presentation. The theme of last night’s 7pm meeting extension was to give residents a chance to speak about the project.

Initial rules were set out by the board, intended to ensure that everyone had a chance to speak.

Each person’s commentary was capped at 3 minutes. It was also made certain that everyone who wanted to speak had an opportunity, before others were allowed to speak again.

This was not to be a question and answer session. Residents could speak their minds and give concerns for the board to think about, but it was not expected that anyone on the board or the developer team would respond.

The meeting started at 7pm and it was stated they would hear comments until 10pm. I think it was around 9:45 when the public commentary ended with no one else prepared to speak, although extended time was given to the last resident’s concerns over the water table in that area.

Residents attend a Harrison Township Joint Land Use Board Meeting for a Rt 322 Warehouse Project

The crowd at times was outspoken and things got a little wild. A police presence was in the room but for the most part they were not needed. One gentleman was escorted from the room after being warned about his outbursts.

When things initially were getting a little more outspoken at the start of the meeting, I started live streaming to the 42Freeway Facebook page thinking it would be for a few minutes just to show how the residents were fully engaged in the process, but very quickly 400 people were watching my shaky handheld stream, so I kept going!

I streamed for just shy of two hours before stopping due to low battery, and then went live again for another 35 minutes to capture the developer’s project closing summary, and the final vote. (Facebook: Commentary Stream 1 Vote Stream 2)

Throughout the evening, at different times certain comments or actions would again stir up the residents. While thing quieted down at times, later in the evening the crowd comments and outbursts appeared again.

Mayor Manzo did not attend the meeting but it was stated by a resident he had voted in advance (after already having heard the developer’s commentary in the prior session). While a reason was not stated, a lawsuit had been filed by residents of the Casella Farms Homeowners Association, and Mayor Manzo was named in the lawsuit… so that could be a factor.

Mullica Hill Resident Commentary

The core of the commentary came down to several topics. The highlights seemed to be pollution and it’s impact on residents, traffic, lower wage jobs, destruction of the quaint bucolic town life, and minimal tax benefit from the project which would not offset new costs to the town.

Another theme for all of these warehouse projects across South Jersey is the lack of communication to the residents that these projects are in the works, until the proverbial “very last minute”. More on that at the bottom of this article.

A line of residents willing to speak formed in the center aisle. It would cap out at around 6 persons in line but as one resident finished speaking, another resident joined the line.

Many stated they had no intention of speaking when the arrived that night, but were inspired by the words and actions of others to also join in.

The resident commentary winded down around 10pm.

Harrison Township Joint Land Use Board Meeting for a Rt 322 Warehouse Project

Impacts to resident’s health was a big concern both in risks from diesel truck exhaust and the impacts of those trucks and cars on local roads, making them less safe to local residents.

A Gloucester Township resident shared details of a recent State report regarding the risks of diesel truck pollution related to warehouse development.

Warehouse salaries were mentioned, in that the promise of “bringing jobs to the community” was not favorable when the average warehouse salary is under $15 an hour.

It was stated multiple times that the project would bring $1.6 million in taxes to the town (I have not confirmed this). Generally this was seen as a low amount of taxes for the amount of impact that the project would have on the town.

I just want to clarify that I think the number is low because while it’s 2.1 million square feet of warehouses, about 2/3 of the project is in Woolwich. So the taxes paid is likely spread across the two towns, of which $1.6 million is Harrison Township’s share.

Which is an interesting factor on this project in that the residents feel they are bearing the full brunt of the project’s negative impacts, yet the town receives less than half of the taxes paid.

Along the same theme of taxes paid, it was stated that expenses to the Township and even the County and State, would increase more than the tax dollars collected. Locally, Police officers would be needed to manage traffic and a the potential for higher crime, for example. Future roadway improvements also were stated… that the burden of upgrading area bridges and roadways to support the warehouses would fall on tax payers.

Traffic was called out several times both in simply the new traffic added by the warehouses, and factoring in impacts of summertime traffic heading to the Jersey Shore.

The environmental impacts were also questioned… related to potential protected wildlife and impacts to water sources and drainage in the area. Later in the meeting this topic got extra attention as residents questioned if an environmental impact study was completed. The developer spoke to it…. stating that there was an environmental impact study completed and it was a shared with the Town and it’s experts previously.

Also called out by residents was the quaint life style of Mullica Hill and the ongoing promises from those in charge that it would remain bucolic, yet a warehouse development does not fit that goal.

Simply the residents questioned how the project improves the community that they live in.

Final Developer Summary and the Vote

At the end of the community session the developer representative was given time to present a closing summary of the project.

During his commentary he covered all aspects of the project including how the project fits into the zoning already defined by the Township, with no variances requested and that the developer is the named redeveloper by the township.

The representative stated the property has been zoned for commercial development for at least 10 years (presumably before Russo came into the picture).

It was also stated the town over recent years reconfirmed the zoning of the properties for warehouse development via the Redevelopment Plan and similar ordinances

All elements of the the project were summarized, highlighting several aspects of where the development plans are better than what was required, such as the lighting on the property and buffer zones being better than what were required.

The Harrison Township Joint Land Board – Russo Development Warehouse Project

The Planning Board members were given a last opportunity to ask questions.

Deputy Mayor Julie Delaurentis had impactful questioning around the traffic study, which was completed in 2019.

It’s important to note that a new wave of development in the farmlands is already underway, with several new projects along Rt 322 to the West in Logan and Woolwich townships… already approved and under development.

So after asking several questions regarding what was included in the traffic summary, the Deputy Mayor clarified that several large warehouse projects and a new residential facility, were not included in the traffic study. The implication being they are evaluating the Russo Mullica Hill project on data that is out of date.

This brought a big positive response from the crowd!

They moved on to the vote.

99% of the time there is a “Motion to approve”

The crowd was pleasantly shocked to hear a board member say “Motion to deny the project”

After some conversation in the board, they moved towards a full role call vote.

Because the motion was to deny, it was explained the board members would be saying “yes” if they wanted to deny the project.

This brought a moment of humor. After several hours of residents yelling “Vote No!”… now one voice was heard in the then then mostly silent room “Vote Yes!”

And one by one the board members voted yes. Yes to deny.

This is a big win for the residents, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over.

6ABC published the following statement from Russo Development

We are disappointed that the Harrison JLUB acted arbitrarily in failing to administer the applicable zoning of the property and approve our application which is fully compliant with zoning and the Redevelopment Plan governing the property. As property owners in the Township, we fully intend to pursue our vested rights to redevelop the property for this appropriate and expressly permitted use.

Russo Development to Action News 6ABC regarding the denial of their Mullica Hill warehouse project.

NJ Redevelopment Plans and Public Notifications

Just some comments from me on Redevelopment Plans and “Sunshine Laws” in New Jersey, which I think I will further address in a separate post and/or video.

Now I want to be very clear to developers and local politicians who may read this. My “thing” is information, clear and factual. I am not for or against warehouses… but I am for proper government processes and communications which sets a fair playing field for residents to then decide on their own how they should react.

So one aspect of Redevelopment Plans I want to call out here is the communication aspect to the public.

Many residents living very close to the project had stated at the meeting and in recent Television interviews that they didn’t know this project was coming until a notice was mailed to just a few residents (one?) several weeks before the final planning meeting.

As a resident speaker called out “The developer had years to prepare their studies, and we get a few weeks?” (paraphrased)

Warehouse project for Harrison/Woolwich Twp to total 2.1 million sq ft
Warehouse project for Harrison/Woolwich Twp to total 2.1 million sq ft

So it’s clear the town has been working with the developers on this project at least for 3 years.

Consider that the traffic study discussed in the meeting was done in 2019 (so conversations had to of been happening before that), and the Redevelopment Area changes were started in 2020.

Yet the residents had no idea.

To be very fair to the Township, if you search on the project at the Harrison Township website you will find documents on the Redevelopment Plan over the last few years.

So then why is it no one in Harrison Township knew this warehouse project was in the works for several years?

I am not picking on just Harrison leadership, as this seems to be a common thing in South Jersey Redevelopment Plans.

Over in Monroe Township, I find it also strange that a Redevelopment Plan for a warehouse was approved earlier in 2022 when it seems no one in town knew about it. I’ve been told that not one resident attended the February 2022 meeting for the redevelopment changes which would eventually allow a warehouse to be approved in a residential area, when in other years plans for that same property had filled the room with concerned residents.

So there just seems to be some type of gap in what is required of towns to communicate to residents when spending 3-4 years on a redevelopment plan, which is a little concerning especially when it’s clear to the leaders of the town all along what that project is, and who will be developing it.

I am not saying it’s intentional but something isn’t right when Town websites and newsletters broadcast out to residents about everything going on in the town such as the town Halloween events or the Recycling calendar, but over 3 years they never mention the potentially exciting new warehouse development coming to town? Even when it is touted as a positive due to the tax revenue it will bring in?

On the Harrison Township website at the Mayor’s Corner page you can find proactive marketing and videos on exciting projects like the new Inspira Hospital, Revitalizing Main Street, Richwood Development progress, revenue from liquor license sales, the new police station…

And while the Mayor’s Corner page hasn’t been updated in a few years, I still have to ask why can’t I find one mention of the warehouse project that has been under discussion with the towns for years?

New Jersey does have “Sunshine Laws” which were written to set rules around communications to the public regarding meeting agendas and minutes.

A big problem though is the main aspects of those laws were written 50 years ago, in response to actions around the Vietnam War and Watergate.

Considering that most of us get our information from the internet, would you believe there is no real requirement for towns to put anything on the internet? Some updates were made around the pandemic but the core requirement is for towns to publish the meeting agenda in a newspaper, and hang copy of the agenda in a public place at town hall. Meeting minutes need to be made available on request.

As another example, at the Somerdale New Jersey website they currently don’t have meeting agendas or minutes listed for any of their Departments or boards. (Update: Somerdale Mayor Passanante updated me that they had upgraded to a new website platform mid-year and will be working with the vendor for additional training on making the agendas and meeting minutes available).

And with newer concepts like Redevelopment Plans… it seems gaps exists in how the communications are handled with the public.

At minimum the moment a discussion takes place about creating a new Redevelopment area or changing one… maybe certified letters should be required to be sent to nearby property owners?

I think the gap that exists today is, at that point nothing is actually getting developed so no one needs to be notified at that time. So discussions continue for years and the residents are not aware.

Maybe milestones in the discussions with developers need to be defined ahead of the final planning meeting or Resolutions, so that residents have a chance to speak while things are being defined?

Another aspect lawmakers need to consider is the “within 200 foot” area for notifications, which makes zero sense in farmland areas like Harrison Township.

It’s been reported by the residents that ONE home got a notification of the warehouse project meeting!

Let’s be honest. Local newspapers are struggling and the “news desert” is already here in much of South Jersey.

If our State leaders don’t look into these antiquated laws and make some changes for the modern era, the citizens are going to get run over.

All I want is a fair playing field for the residents. The towns have all of the cards. The developers are going to the town leaders for the project planning and approvals so the town has all the cards. If the laws don’t force the towns to “show their cards” the residents have no shot at winning a hand.

At least one resident last night said “This shouldn’t have gotten this far”. I honestly believe if the residents knew this was in the works three years ago, this project wouldn’t have come this far.

I am not anti-government and I respect what our local politicians due to keep our towns running.

But I am pro-information. Just give the residents the information and let them decide what to do with it.