Following the Facts About Sparta’s ‘Mega Warehouse’
What’s on the Record Regarding the Potential 880,000 Square Foot Project
By JENNIFER DERICKS
Published: July 3, 2022 at 2:23 AM
SPARTA, NJ- While there is much that is still hidden, here is what is known about the 880,000 square foot multi-modal facility proposed for 33 Demarest Road from the testimony and comments made on the record by officials and the applicant, meeting minutes and documents obtained through OPRA.
Attorney for applicant Diamond Chip Realty, Steven Gauin confirmed a statement made to TAPinto Sparta by developer Jim Ford; the developer requested the changes made to the Sparta Land Use in Ordinance 21-01 to increase allowable height and impervious coverage. This change allowed for the mega-warehouse to be a “conforming” application, limiting options for the residents who oppose the project.
“That was the reason for adopting the ordinance amendment to the ED zone, to permit this project and we are fully conforming with this project,” Gauin said during the hearing before the planning board on April 6.
Sparta’s elected and appointed officials are unpaid or marginally compensated residents. They rely on a bevy of professionals for advice and counsel as they navigate unfamiliar subject matter, some with significant legal implications, such as Ordinance 21-01 and Diamond Chip’s subsequent application to the planning board.
Sparta Township’s professionals include township attorney Tom Ryan, township engineer Stan Puszcz, Planning Board attorney Tom Collins, Planning Board engineer David Simmons, Township planner Katherine Sarmad and Zoning Board attorney Glenn Keintz and acting township manager Neil Spidaletto.
In advising their client – Sparta Township Council, Planning Board and Zoning Board members, the attorneys are required to adhere to Rules of Professional Conduct. While all rules of conduct are always relevant, the specific RPC related to the recent and ongoing hearings include: “NJ RPC 1.4 Communication (b) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable request for information and (c) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”
From the beginning or nearly the beginning
Recommendations made by Harbor Consultants in the 2019 Master Plan Review included removing impediments to development of rail dependent businesses in the economic development zone. Those recommendations were part of the report submitted to the township in February 2020 according to Sparta Planning Board minutes and were the basis for the amendment to land use ordinances according to the July 15, 2020 planning board minutes.
March 3, 2020, prior to any public discussion of changing the land use ordinance, Jens Riedel Natural Systems Utilities managing engineer for Diamond Chip Realty, LLC held a pre-application meeting about elements of the proposed project at 33 Demarest Drive. As of publication only Keintz responded to TAPinto Sparta’s request to determine who attended this meeting. Keintz said he had meetings in Sparta around that time but not about the Diamond Chip Realty application. Collins, Simmons, Puszcz, Sparta Planning and Zoning administrator Diana Katzenstein all declined to comment before publication.
Over the course of three Zoom meetings, the planning board members discussed the proposed ordinance changes that ended up in Ordinance 21-01.
The minutes of the July 15, 2020 planning board meeting reflect Collins and “the township” reviewed existing ordinances and drafted an “amendment to the ED and PDRM-1 Zones.” There was no explanation in the minutes as to who “the township” is and township planner Sarmad is not named as having helped prepare the draft ordinance.
The July 15, 2020 minutes specifically reference “the additional height necessary for the vertical stacking of products which would exceed the 35-foot requirement” proposing an increase to 56 feet. Further the minutes show the recommendation for the “existing lot coverage requirement of 40%” to be “increased to 65%” just as requested by the developer, according to statements made by Ford to TAPinto Sparta.
Planning board member comments include “this would be good for economic growth” by Zacsek but he was concerned about limitations to hazardous materials. Puszcz said all protections currently in place would remain.
Mayor Jerry Murphy asked for a map that identified all rail sidings and lots that would be included in the new zone.
Minutes of the September 2, 2020 planning board meeting again have Collins and Puszcz discussing the proposed ordinance changes for “rail dependent uses.” The map requested at the July meeting was produced. Puszcz said “the benefits are to reduce truck traffic on Houses Corner Road specifically by using the railroad.”
Planning Board minutes of September 2, 2020 reflect several board members asking “how many parcels could take advantage of the ordinance amendment” as well as impact to surrounding residences.
Puszcz said, “Only about four or five properties that can meet the criteria including lot size with a few on Houses Corner Road and two or three on the Limecrest side of Route 15.” There was no discussion of the number of lots that qualified on Aaron Way, though that road was included in the July 2020 discussion of the draft ordinance.
Collins reiterated the ordinance will “raise the height and allow outside storage which will require site plans to modernize some of the pre-existing uses in the area.”
Councilwoman Quinn said they should be “mindful of the homes nearby” and asked for “controls in the ordinance to prevent storage of cars.”
Board member Healy asked “how the 56 foot height was considered.” Puszcz explained he “researched several warehouse companies with rail uses and this is the industry standard throughout the Midwest for storage height.”
On October 27, 2020- prior to planning board’s vote on the proposed ordinance and November 17, 2020 email between Kimley-Horn engineer Tony Diggan on behalf of Diamond Chip Realty and Planning Board Engineer Dave Simmons show Diamond Chip Realty was interested in developing the site of Sparta Redi-Mix. “Environmental specialist” for the developer Mike Greene, in his testimony at the June 1, 2022 planning board meeting said he had been to the site of the proposed project “three or four times…since it was started in 2020.”
Puszcz again said “it is beneficial to take advantage of the freight rail lines which are a resource to the township and will reduce traffic on the roads.”
Collins, according to the minutes, answered questions about accessory uses, including solar energy and battery storage being allowed in specific locations. He also said, “this is an example of good planning for the future.”
The board unanimously approved the draft ordinance. Planning board member John Kollar and Quinn were not at that meeting. Kollar had also missed the September and July discussions of the ordinance changes.
21-01 comes to the township council for a vote
At the February 9, 2021 meeting the ordinance was introduced. TAPinto Sparta asked questions about the ordinance including “what had been changed” with this amendment that was not in the existing ordinance. In response to the questions Puszcz said there “were no changes in use so all uses would remain unchanged.” Other questions asked by TAPinto Sparta included; what was the reason for the ordinance and was it to bring existing properties into compliance. The answer was to bring the zone to industry standards for rail dependent use and no property was not at that time operating outside of compliance.
The hearing of Ordinance 21-01 was held at the February 23, 2021. Both meetings with this ordinance on the agenda were hybrid; held in person and on Zoom, though audio only for the public. Collins attended via Zoom, Puszcz was in person.
“This is the kind of thing we talk about in the Economic Development Committee all the time; little changes that can be made that are just common sense, that will help the business community and the taxpayer,” Councilman and Planning Board member Josh Hertzberg commented.
Quinn said the planning board “wants to support an asset that the town has as far as economic development.”
In the hearing Chiariello asked about potential impact of the changes including truck traffic in the area if the change was made.
“I think scale matters and there is no statement as to the scope of this. Does adding a warehouse to this area add two trucks a day or 200 trucks a day,” Chiariello said asking about the addition of transshipment facilities, warehouses, wholesale distribution centers as permitted uses. “The scale of the operation is not addressed in this ordinance…adding a warehouse attached to a rail line could add two trucks a day on Route 15 …or 200 trucks a day.”
Puszcz explained land use ordinances are designed to be scalable; the size of the facility depends on the size of the property based on what is allowable in zone according to the ordinance.
“All of the land use ordinances within the comprehensive land use code is by definition a scalable ordinance with bulk standards,” Puszcz said. “It speaks to the property itself and has various quantitative requirements that would scale the operation relative to the site…As to the number of trucks, that has everything to do with what the proposed operation is and the land use ordinance doesn’t regulate traffic. Traffic becomes an issue at each application. And if a traffic study is conducted, it would be through that study and through the particulars of that application that traffic would be dealt with.
Collins was at the meeting but he did not say anything, as is reflected in the audio recording and the minutes of the meeting. He did not clarify for Chiariello and the council members that the planning board would not be able to vote against any project simply because of traffic once the new zoning rules were adopted with Ordinance 21-01’s approval. This legal precedent was established in 1984 in Dunkin’ Donuts v Township of North Brunswick.
Chiariello asked why rail dependent use facilities would get additional impervious coverage from 40 to 65%.
Puszcz clarified this is only available to small number of properties along the rail line. “But this is simply the recognition that we want to shift the intensity of use adjacent to the rail line and not allow that intensity to move away from the rail line…If the proposed building infrastructure is to be developed within 500 feet of the rail line, really limiting the number of properties and limiting how the properties can be developed in that context, by keeping a short distance between the rail line and the operation.”
Chiariello said he had concerns about the quality of life for people who have to drive on Route 15 if this ordinance is passed as well as concerns about continued erosions Highlands Planning Area protections for the Germany Flats Aquifer.
The township council members approved the ordinance 4-1 with Chiariello voting no.
Things move quickly after the ordinance approval
In May 2021 Puszcz communicates with Collins, Simmons, Katzenstein, Diggan, Gauin and Ford to set up another pre-application meeting, reviewing plans dated April 2021, a few weeks after Ordinance 21-01 was approved.
In May 2021 Riedel submits a 34 page “Site Specific Water Quality Management Plan Amendment for Diamond Chip Realty, LLC Sparta Warehouse.”
On May 25 and June 26, 2021 Riedel emails the township clerk Kate Chambers to request a resolution supporting a proposed Water Quality Management Plan.
On June 30, 2021 a copy of the requested resolution is sent to Collins. Collins then forwards to Puszcz. Puszcz tells Chambers “This is not a planning/zoning matter. It should be handled by my office” and he will discuss “with Neil” [Spidaletto].
On August 25, 2021 there is another meeting with Collins, Simmons, Sarmad, Katzentein and Sparta engineer Dave Clark and Diggan for the developer, according to OPRA’d documents.
On October 26, 2021 The township council votes on the resolution requested by Riedel, without any discussion from council members. TAPinto Sparta did ask about potential traffic from the proposed 880,000 square foot warehouse and office when that resolution was unanimously approved. Puszcz said the developer was working on doing a traffic study but did not recognize they are required to do so. When the application was submitted in November it contained a traffic study dated July 2021.
On November 15, 2021 Diamond Chip Realty LLC applied for preliminary site plan approval. The application was sent to Planning and Zoning Administrator Diana Katzenstien though planning board and township council members Josh Hertzberg and Quinn said they did not know about the proposed multimodal facility until they “read about it on Facebook,” in 2022.
TAPinto Sparta reviewed the plans in January 2022 and the first article on the topic was published on January 20, 2022.
The next planning board meeting is scheduled for July 6, 2022. The Diamond Chip Realty, LLC hearing is on the agenda.
The next township council meeting is scheduled for July 12, 2022. The agenda for that meeting is not yet posted.
Other articles on the topic
Sparta Township Council Refuses Member, Public’s Request to Rescind Ordinance that Led to 880,000 Square Foot ‘Warehouse’ Application
Sparta’s Environmental Commission Requests Township Council Hire Environmental Experts for ‘Warehouse’ Application
Developer Questioned About Influencing Ordinance Change at Sparta Planning Board
Sparta Zoning Board Declines to Hear Community’s Question About 880,000 Square Foot Project
Sparta’s Professionals Worked with Warehouse Developer for Months Before Application
Questions for Sparta Zoning Board About Application Challenging 880,000 Square Foot Warehouse Project
Sparta Township Council Meeting Dominated by Warehouse Talk – Again
An Interview with Proposed Sparta Warehouse Developers
Local Attorneys File with Sparta Zoning Board in Opposition to Warehouse Project
Sparta Planning Board Holds First Hearing on 880,000 Square Foot Warehouse
Sparta Residents Raise Concerns About 880,000 Square Foot Warehouse in Advance of Planning Board Meeting
Sparta Township Could Get 880,000 Square Foot Warehouse Complex
Courtesy of TapIntoSparta