TRENTON – Legislation that seeks to rein in the explosive sprawl of warehouse construction in New Jersey ran into trouble at its first hearing Thursday, unable to gain the endorsement of a committee chaired by one of the bill’s sponsors.

No matter, as the bill’s lead sponsor is Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who simply exercised his authority as the presiding officer and transferred the bill to the Senate budget committee, which probably would have been its next stop anyway.

“This is a starting point of a broader conversation and an important conversation that I think is long overdue,” said Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, who is the bill’s second prime sponsor. “Overdue in the sense of a broader conversation around how we effectively do regional planning in our state.”

The bill, S3688, would require adjoining municipalities to be notified and provided a report that includes a regional economic impact analysis when applications are filed to build large warehouses. Neighbors can adopt a resolution that creates a joint board with members from each municipality that would consider the development plan – though wouldn’t have veto power, as the bill currently stands.

Greg Westfall, a former mayor of Allentown in Monmouth County who remains chair of its Environmental Commission, said the borough’s historic district is endangered due to warehouse development at its border in Robbinsville.

“Trucks have been traveling into Allentown, turning around on borough-owned streets and causing public and private property damages. Trucks have injured and nearly killed several pedestrians in our State Plan-designated historic village,” Westfall said.

“Allentown Borough, being at the edge of two counties and several municipalities, over the years has consistently suffered from poor land-use decisions and what some have called border dumping,” he said.

Michael McGuinness, chief executive officer of the New Jersey chapter of the commercial real estate association NAIOP, said the bill would damage the logistics and warehouse sector that he said has grown to account for 12% of the state workforce and gross domestic product.

“New Jersey is a logistics state, but we’re also a home rule state and that has consequences,” McGuinness said.

McGuinness said he agrees that warehouse growth is an issue that needs to be addressed but that the current proposal “would essentially pull the rug out from underneath our state’s critical supply chain system by imposing what in effect is a moratorium on the approval of new centers.”

“However well-intentioned, S-3688 as currently drafted would add further disruption and obstacles to an industry that is New Jersey’s only well-performing and most important economic asset,” he said.

The bill only got two favorable votes on the five-member Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee. Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, and Sen. Christopher Connors, R-Ocean voted to abstain, saying there are a lot of concerns and questions still unaddressed.

Singleton said he was personally disappointed by Rice’s abstention, as lawmakers – particularly in the majority party – will often vote for bills despite having concerns, with the understanding that changes will be made to the bill in other committee or through floor amendments.

“We have to be thoughtful and serious about this discussion in such a way that we move it forward, to kind of collaboration that’s necessary to make a positive change that allows our economy to continue to grow and flourish and allows communities to be vibrant and whole, without worrying about getting caught in between tractor trailers moving throughout their neighborhood,” Singleton said. “We can do this. We have to do this, and we can do this. It just takes us working together to do it.”

Rice is famously independent, though, and unfazed by scrapes with leadership. A lot of the concerns he raised mirrored those of the New York Shipping Association, the maritime industry group for operators in the ports in Newark, where Rice represents.

“The comments that was mentioned need to be analyzed and evaluated because they’re concerns that I have and a large part of my area,” Rice said. “Also having environmental problems but also having a need to protect jobs and enhance jobs.”

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The politics of the issue are complex. The New Jersey State League of Municipalities, for instance, represents both the host communities where warehouse ratables could be blocked – as well as the adjacent ones that suffer the impacts without seeing the financial benefits.

Mike Cerra, the NJLM’s executive director, said the league’s executive board will review the latest substitute bill and submit detailed comments.

“We think good planning is done at the local level,” Cerra said. “We had a hand in crafting the MLUL (Municipal Land Use Law) a half a century ago, and I think it’s worked pretty well. It doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, and we’re willing to be a part of that process.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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