The first Amazon fulfillment center to open in New Jersey, four years ago, was greeted with excitement. Amazon, the online shopping giant, came into Robbinsville promising jobs and significant tax revenues and downplayed concerns there could be any adverse impact on the small town.
But within a year, Mayor Dave Fried was threatening to sue and shut down the facility, citing safety concerns. Amazon had projected that it would have 1,000 employees, but that number quickly quadrupled, clogging streets and neighborhoods that were already reeling from the onslaught of tractor-trailers rumbling through the town, he said.
Now, as two more Amazon centers and a few other mega-warehouses move south into Burlington County, the residents in the rural towns that would host their facilities are mobilizing. Uniting under the banner Northern Burlington CARES, or NBCares for short, the residents say Robbinsville is a cautionary tale, and they are demanding that developers take measures to minimize potential traffic problems ahead of time.
“Throughout Northern Burlington we’re becoming sandwiched in by all these warehouses,” said Michelle Rosenblum of Florence. “The problem is the cumulative impact of all these warehouses and increasing traffic and noise.”
The grassroots NBCares scored perhaps its first victory last week after waging a bitter legal battle against a developer in Mansfield Township, a predominantly agrarian community centered on the quaint village of Columbus.
The group announced Thursday that it reached a legal settlement with a developer who had proposed an 1.8 million-square-foot warehouse project that would have consumed 200 acres of farmland off the New Jersey Turnpike and I-295. Plans called for hundreds of tractor-trailers to leave the warehouse each day and thunder down a narrow, hilly, two-lane road lined with farms and about 20 homes that sit on wooded lots.
Now, the plans have been revised to reflect that the shoulder-less Hedding-Jacksonville Road will be spared the traffic, and all of the vehicles entering and exiting the warehouses will use Columbus-Florence Road, which is only about 1,000 feet from a ramp onto I-295.
“The tractor-trailers are dangerous, and there would be too many of them on that narrow street,” said Beth Camp, the secretary/treasurer of NBCares. Her father built their family home in the 1960s on that street and she had rallied her neighbors when she learned it would bear a major share of the traffic from the warehouse project.
Proposed a decade ago by Margolis Enterprises of Boca Raton, Fla., the project is now being developed under the name VA Florence Co. A spokesperson said construction on the first of three proposed 55-foot-tall warehouses, which total almost 1.8 million square feet, would begin immediately.
At a planning board meeting jammed with almost 200 residents on Thursday night, the developer’s lawyer said the company doesn’t have tenants yet, but does not plan to sell or lease to Amazon.
NBCares attorney George Hulse filed appeals after the county planning board approved the plan. He also filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking to have the developer pay its full share of taxes rather than being offered a tax abatement. Abatements are offered to developers on land that is declared in need of redevelopment, but Hulse argued that the 200-acre farm is not blighted and does not fit the legal definition of an area that should be redeveloped.
The complaint helped persuade the developer to settle because “it involved a significant risk to the tax abatement program, which offered a significant incentive for them to build,” Hulse said in an interview.
The agreement calls for the complaint to be dismissed.
Hulse said the settlement also was a win for his clients because it avoided the risk that the planning board could have approved the plans without changing the traffic patterns.
Michael Gross, the attorney for VA Florence, said at the meeting that the developer was revising its plans “because we have listened to the sentiments of the neighbors.”
The developer agreed to build a bridge over Craft’s Creek, a tiny waterway that bisects the warehouse site, so that all the warehouse traffic can use the single entrance closest to I-295. However, if environmental approvals are denied, the developer has the option of returning to the planning board and can again ask permission to have some of the trucks use Hedding-Jacksonville Road.
Residents at the meeting said that traffic in the area is already congested and that they fear new warehouses will only make it worse. “Do you realize 295 is a train wreck at rush hour now?” said Patrick Sullivan of Florence, to loud applause.
The Margolis warehouses will be about five miles from an Amazon distribution center that opened recently in Florence. Several miles away, a second Amazon center is under construction at the site of the closed U.S. Pipe plant, which straddles Burlington City and Burlington Township. It would be one million square feet.
Mansfield residents created NBCares but invited people from neighboring towns to join. Camp said the group will be a watchdog for the whole area to make sure the developments that are proposed are feasible and won’t destroy residents’ way of life.
“Would we prefer to not have the warehouses? Of course. But someone owns the land and they have a right to develop it, but just not at the expense of the neighbors,” she said.
Rosenblum, who joined NBCares, said that one problem is “towns say they are only responsible for what’s within their borders, and no one is taking a look at this from a macro-level.” She said that fighting these projects “takes a lot of civic activism and resources” to go up against the “deep pockets that these companies have.”
The Mansfield warehouses will be built adjacent to the Liberty Lake Day Camp and a sprawling farm.
Andy Pritikin, owner of the popular day camp, said he initially was concerned about the impact the warehouses might have on his land. But he said the developer agreed to provide an adequate buffer and take steps to mitigate against potential flooding to address his concerns.
Robbinsville Mayor Fried said that the first year that Amazon opened, after it was built on farmland, was fraught with problems. “But we have worked out all the kinks,” he said.
Amazon agreed to stagger employee shifts and to provide park-and-ride shuttle service for its employees to reduce congestion. The company also reduced the trip and delivery volume, he said. An Amazon spokesperson said the company worked with the town to solve issues.
“The problem is now under control, but we had to be tough and hold them to the rules and what they agreed to do,” Fried said. “At the end of the day, they are our biggest taxpayer and they brought in good-paying jobs.”