A fully realized Mercer Corporate Park is one step closer to completion following last month’s Robbinsville Zoning Board meeting.
The board OKed a bifurcated use and bulk variance application submitted by Johnson Development Associates Feb. 23. The application sought relief to allow for the development of two light industrial warehouse/distribution/office facilities on part of the 90-acre Mercer Corporate Park property on Robbinsville-Allentown Road.
The space currently houses a 61,500-sq.-ft. office building—if the plan goes forward, three buildings will exist after development. The developer came to the board with the variance application because a standalone warehouse is not permitted under current zoning. It will allow for two new buildings and improvements on the existing structures.
“Given the changing nature of the retail business, with consumers making more online purchases, the demand for warehouse facilities has grown significantly,” said Tripp Bailey, regional director of Johnson’s industrial division.
Bailey said that Johnson was drawn to the site because of its access to Interstate 195 and the New Jersey Turnpike, as well as existing infrastructure like stormwater management facilities and a corporate loop road. The developer is aiming for summer site plan approval on the new 330,000-sq.ft. warehouse facility and 160,000-sq.-ft. office space.
But some site neighbors in Allentown are not pleased. Around 80 residents showed up to the virtual Feb. 23 meeting to object to the plan. Though Bailey said Johnson has engaged in an “extensive dialogue” with Allentown residents and officials about concerns like existing truck traffic, those who live near the site say that’s not enough.
Johnson proposed a traffic circle to reroute trucks so that they can’t turn left onto Route 526—instead, they’ll use 195. However, some residents objected. Allentown resident Greg Westfall noted that there is no eastbound ramp to 195 there.
“You can’t get on,” he said. “You can only get off. I commend you for considering the roundabout and apparently supporting it, but I think we’ve got to look at how the vehicles that turn right get back onto 195. It is not a full interchange.”
Linda Cotte, also of Allentown, said while she appreciates that Johnson is addressing truck traffic, she has other concerns, like noise and light pollution. The site is already loud, she said, and she’s wary about added noise and light during construction and once the property is completed. Cotte suggested a berm be built between the corporate park and residences that back up against it.
She also voiced concerns about how construction would affect nearby wildlife, as well as Indian Run Creek. The site is also currently home to designated wetlands—which started out as a dam-like structure initially built as a sort of water feature when Mercer Corporate Park was first imagined.
A number of Allentown residents expressed concern for the wildlife that has made that space home—including some endangered species, residents claimed. Janice Buchalski cited the vesper sparrow, which breeds on the site according to the DEP Natural Heritage Database.
Jera Piper of Allentown also addressed wildlife, naming bald eagles and the Fowler’s toad as species that inhabit the space, as recognized by a Robbinsville environmental study from 2012.
Her concerns expanded beyond wildlife, too.
“What happens when there’s flooding?” she asked. “Who is that going to impact? Who is going to pay for the unsuitable soils that are going to be built upon by wetlands?”
Zoning board attorney Michael Herbert directed those with environmental concerns to the state DEP, saying that the board could not deny the plan based on those concerns.
“We can’t have a record full of environmental objection,” he said. “It’s not proper… I would love to talk about sports and things, but it’s only relevant if it’s about municipal land use law.”
The meeting lasted over four hours, from 7 p.m. to around 11:30 p.m. Frustration—from both sides—was apparent.
“Are you running out the clock to prevent public comment?” asked one resident about an hour into the meeting.
“I request an additional meeting, at an appropriate time, for the public to be able to voice their concerns,” wrote another. To have a vote with the public’s comment is inappropriate.”
Shortly after, the chat feature was disabled. Some used other means to speak up, though.
“I raised questions about the use of the property, and my questions were ignored,” wrote Allentown resident Mary Fahy Woehr in the Zoom Q&A feature. “So Robbinsville is not interested in listening to the concerns of the neighboring residents. You’re not impacting your residents with this, but you’re surrounding our town with your warehouses. And you act like you’re doing us a favor by not developing as much as you could. So we should be happy because it basically could be worse.”