Last November, a central New Jersey developer announced a plan to build three warehouses on nearly two million square feet of farmland in Pilesgrove, Salem County.
Reacting as if they were being overrun, the residents of this township of 4,000 people executed a popular counterattack.
Within a week, they had organized a management team, created a Go Fund Me site and Facebook page, hired a lawyer and distributed 1,600 flyers urging people to attend a planning board meeting where the developer would ask a zoning waiver for desired land along Auburn Rural Road.
More than 250 people showed up for the meeting in a room that seats 100. Following COVID-19 protocols, the council postponed until after Christmas. The team spent the holidays hammering 150 anti-warehouse signs into frozen lawns and farms.
While many would accept warehouses on larger local highways – as noted in the township master plan for land use – the idea of fields of concrete boxes along a two-lane road in what locals call “God’s Country” was anathema. And residents lamented that they would bear the cost of repairing local roads destroyed by 18-wheeler convoys.
Before the planning council reconvened, the developer withdrew its proposal without explanation.
“You all crushed him!” Team leader Wayne Wagner, 50, a financial adviser, wrote on Facebook, celebrating the victory of a group of farmers, blue-collar workers and well-to-do squires.
But their glory was short-lived.
In the spring, the developer, John Kainer, of Auburn Realty Partners LLC in Manasquan, Monmouth County, reasserted himself.
In his original application to change the zoning from agriculture to light industry, Kainer did not yet own the land. But recently he paid $1.7 million for about 155 farm acres on opposite sides of Auburn Road, tax records show.
A 990,000 square foot warehouse would be built on a 73-acre parcel that was owned by a North Jersey real estate company, according to tax records and previously proposed building plans. It would have room for 426 cars and 248 trailer spaces. Other plans were unclear.
“That means he’s not going away,” Wagner said.
Asked for a comment, Kainer, who has yet to apply for a new waiver, said: “I have no interest in talking.
Since the Pilesgrove Planning Board and township administrators were also unwilling to discuss the project, few details were available.
But one thing was clear to Wagner: “He [Kainer] always trying to ram that down our throats. We are his lottery ticket. So let’s fight. »
In Salem and Gloucester counties, gigantic, squat warehouses have “popped up like mushrooms,” said Christine Nolan, director of the South Jersey Land and Water Trust, an environmental nonprofit.
“There is an assault in these towns.”
Nolan said the Auburn Road development could damage groundwater, streams and animal habitats. Light, noise and air pollution could soil the bucolic grounds.
Since each township negotiates its own projects, it is impossible to calculate the number of warehouses planned to replace fields of corn, soybeans and squash, real estate experts said.
Business broker Giacomo Reggente of Axon Real Estate in Pilesgrove said 12 warehouses had been built in the Pilesgrove area in the past two years, many of them in neighboring Gloucester County.
The agricultural acres have attracted warehouse development for Amazon (with a site in Salem County on U.S. Route 40), Target (in Gloucester County on U.S. Route 322) and other companies eager for hubs to store products as online shopping proliferates, he said.
Most warehouses develop between the Commodore Barry Bridge and the Delaware Memorial Bridge — “low-population farmland near truck arteries like the Jersey Turnpike,” Reggente added.
John Hasse, chair of Rowan University’s Department of Geography, Planning and Sustainability, said the pandemic has accelerated remote shopping, “which has pushed warehouse construction forward by a decade or more in two years”.
Warehouses bring in profits.
Industrial land in South Jersey has gone from $100,000 to $500,000 per acre in the past five years, according to Jeff Lucas of Rose Commercial Real Estate in Marlton.
Meanwhile, the value of industrial buildings has doubled in three years, from $50 per square foot to $100.
Add to that an expanding job market at $20 an hour. And, Lucas said, townships collect tax “bonanzas” of $1 million for every million square feet of warehouse (technically, the money goes to townships, counties and school boards.)
This money accumulates without an increase in population, which avoids spending on additional schools and police.
For many farmers, land is “their only retirement plan,” Hasse said. The developers usher them into their advanced years as millionaires, Lucas said.
But in Pilesgrove, the conversation isn’t always about profit.
“I’m a farmer, but I see the development as potentially devastating,” said Scott Donnini, 55, co-owner of a vineyard and winery in Auburn Road. “I haven’t met anyone who is for it.
“And when the next change in the economy comes and the warehouses are abandoned, there’s no land reclamation. Buildings remain forever.
“Calling that progress makes no sense at all.”
Mayor of Pilesgrove Kevin Eachus said that while additional tax revenue is beneficial, “it’s not the main thing”.
The values prescribed by generations of agrarian life permeate the local culture. “We are known for Cowtown Rodeo, Salem County Fair,” Eachus said. “We are a strong community coming together” to preserve the land.
For locals, the most obvious example of allegiance to the land is the Harris family, owners of the rodeo and who have worked over 1,000 acres in Pilesgrove for about 13 generations. The family are known for their preference for cows over promoters and have turned down a number of warehouse builders.
Reggente understands, explaining that Pilesgrove is “a Nebraska farm in a Have a good days time shift. And they all speak with a twang.
Yet, while it is impressive how opposed the township is to Auburn’s development, he added, “it is inevitable that developers will build warehouses on country roads like Auburn. These guys have money and stamina. Sooner or later, most older generation farmers sell.
Across America, people are buying farmland as investments, thinking it will be developed by builders who will build “tailor-made” warehouses. Confident buyers will materialize, experts say.
The only option for small towns like Pilesgrove is negotiation, said Reggente, who has mastered aikido, a martial art that embraces the attacker’s movement rather than directly opposing it.
“Residents can’t turn up to planning meetings like angry mobs,” he said. “And developers can’t be ogres.”
In exchange for land, Reggente suggests, townships should demand concessions: traffic limits and road fees, for example.
Still at war, Wagner recognizes that there is still a need to modernize and license builders. After all, it is part of the master plan, he said: “Set up warehouses in previously designated industrial areas.
“But let’s keep the rural areas to protect our way of life.”
That’s the opinion of Mike Fraser, 57, owner of the Sneakers & Spokes bike shop in Woodstown, a borough completely surrounded by Pilesgrove.
“It’s the best county in the area for biking due to the lack of traffic,” he said. “In the end, what part of this Amazonian world can we live in?”