Warehouse Ordinance Passes, At Least One Lawsuit Promised

Supporters of the zoning ordinance change – most of whom live in Canal Walk – react when the ordinance is unanimously approved by Township Council members in attendance at the July 19 special meeting.

The ink is barely dry on the Township Council’s approval of an ordinance limiting where warehouses can be built in Franklin, but at least one objector’s attorney says his client will challenge it in court.

Ferdinando Pugliese, who represents Toranco Executive, the owner of 1, 2 and 3 Executive Drive, said immediately after the July 19 unanimous vote approving the ordinance that his client will sue to have it overturned.

A representative of at least one other property owner in town, 5 Belmont Associates, said on July 18 that his client may also sue to have the ordinance overturned.

Of the 15 or so people who spoke during the public hearing, nine were opposed to the ordinance. There were no opposing voices heard when the ordinance was introduced, and Township Clerk Ann McCarthy said on July 19 the Township has received five letters opposing the ordinance.

Pugliese was supported during the ordinance’s July 19 public hearing by the properties’ leasing agent, Dennis McConnell.

By adopting the zoning changes, McConnell said, the Council is “pulling the rug out from under” his clients, who own several office buildings.

McConnell said his clients relied on action taken by the Council in 2020 in creating a Business and Industrial zone, and eliminating the Manufacturing Zone. That move, he said, supported warehouse development in the zone in which the offices are located.

In line with that, McConnell said, his clients decided to convert the properties into warehouses. To that end, he said they began emptying the office buildings of tenants.

His clients have emptied their buildings of all but three tenants.

“You just pulled the rug out from underneath them,” he said.

Also opposing the ordinance was Frank Vitolo, an attorney representing Heller Industrial Parks.

Vitolo said the zoning changes in the ordinance “will have a devastating effect on their facilities. Their current facilities are going to become non-conforming, and you’ve basically issued a moratorium on any new warehouse development.”

“The right way to enact a new zoning ordinance is to understand the unintended consequences, the wrong way is to fail to even consider them,” he said.

“I know you guys are better than this,” Vitolo said. “You know why? Because I looked in the files and guess what I found. Master Plan reexaminations. You didn’t do it here. Why not?”

Vitolo also said that the ordinance relies on a state plan that is still in draft form. He said changes could be made to the document buy the time it is adopted in August, and if so, “your ordinance isn’t even as good as the paper it’s written on. It’s a fatal flaw, and just one. There are many of them.”

Francis Linnus, an attorney representing the owners of Northern Nurseries on Elizabeth Avenue, told the Council that the ordinance “is defective. I believe it can be challenged and I believe it can be successfully challenged.”

Luke Pontier, an attorney representing Woodmont Industrial Partners, the contract purchaser of Northern Nurseries, told the Council that his client has invested “substantial amounts of money” in devising a development for the property, based on comments received from Township officials.

“Woodmont submitted an initial plan for the property in the Winter of 2021 depicting a warehouse, and it did receive substantive comments back from several township officials, and with reliance on that feedback, Woodmont did updated it plans to create a fully conforming, variance-free application,” he said. “Woodmont has invested substantial amounts of money in its due diligence in the development of this property.”

“Woodmont was quite surprised about the rezoning of this property which would render warehousing a non-permitted use,” Pontier said. “Not once did the Township notify my client that this ordinance was in the pipeline.”

The ordinance did have its supporters.

Robert Schmidt of Elizabeth Avenue said he hoped the ordinance would stem the amount of tractor-trailers that use Elizabeth Avenue.

“On May 12, I counted 24 semis cruising up and down Elizabeth Avenue,” he said. “On July 15, I counted 63.”

“I’m concerned that that truck traffic will continue to increase,” he said. “We have 18-wheelers backed up at every intersection in the area.”

“I would request that you do anything you can to reduce the truck traffic or at least do what you can to prevent it from increasing anymore; immediately disallowing further warehouses would be a good start,” he said.

Tiki Anastasakos of Canal Walk said residents there are “extremely concerned” about the “sprawl” of warehouses. But, she said, she was concerned that the 20-day waiting period for the ordinance to take effect would allow more warehouse applications to come in under the gun.

“Why aren’t you providing more incentives for warehouse builders to utilize the empty corporate buildings,” she asked.

Another Canal Walk resident, John LoPresti, asked the Council to “please remember the human factor.”

Jan Brant of Canal Walk said she was not against warehouses, “but they should not be next to people’s houses, they should not be placed next to schools, they shouldn’t be placed on wetlands.”

“It really affects the quality of life … we deserve to be able to open up our windows and not worry about trucks going into warehouses,” she said. “It also affects us financially, because when we have to sell our properties, the value decreases.”

The ordinance was unanimously approved by Council members in attendance; only Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5) was absent.

The ordinance, drawn up in the past month in response to complaints from Canal Walk residents about a proposed warehouse near their development, limits where warehouses can be built, and also sets larger boundaries between residential properties and a property holding a warehouse.

The ordinance changes warehouses from a permitted use to a conditional permitted use in the Business and Industry zone, and prohibits the construction of warehouses on land within 500 feet of a residential zone.

Warehouses also have to be able to be connected to public water and sewer.

The ordinance also takes aim at future warehouses through the rezoning of some prime parcels.

A 60-acre parcel that does not permit warehouses, but does permit large-scale commercial development wase rezoned from Research, Office and Laboratory to RR3, which is residential with 3-acre minimum lots.

A 10- to 20-acre portion of land along Mettlers Road – near Central Jersey College Prep Charter School – is rezoned from ROL to Agricultural, to make them consistent with the zoning of surrounding properties, said Mark Healey, the township’s Director of Planning.

Properties along Elizabeth Avenue, south of New Brunswick Road are rezoned from Business and Industry to the R-40 zone, a residential zone that requires 40,000-square-foot lots.

The ordinance is seen as a first step in mitigating the effects of a steep rise in the number of warehouses built in and planned for the township.

Following is a gallery of those who spoke at the meeting:

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