At a special township committee meeting early this month, residents of Chesterfield, New Jersey, showed up in force to debate a topic that has divided the town for years: a proposal to build a million-square-foot warehouse on the site of the Old York Country Club at the edge of town.
Over an hour and a half of public comment revealed mixed reactions to the project, though the overwhelming majority of the residents present spoke against the proposal. Chief among the residents’ concerns was preserving the agrarian feel of the town, which is known for its historical town center and thousands of acres of preserved farmland.
“I believe warehouses do not reflect the rural character of Chesterfield,” said Tom Flaherty, a resident who attended the special meeting virtually.
New Jersey may not be the first state to come to mind when you’re thinking “rural.” All of its counties are located in Metropolitan Statistical Areas, and it’s part of the second most densely populated region in the nation. Yet, many communities have retained their rural character, a legacy of New Jersey’s agrarian past. Chesterfield is one of the many small towns that are still involved in agricultural production, and consider their rural character central to their identity.
Fueled by the increase in online shopping during the pandemic, developers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been transforming thousands of acres of land into warehouses at an unprecedented rate, and are showing no signs of slowing down.
Neighboring townships, including Bordentown and Mansfield, have already approved millions of square feet in warehouse projects. Residents like Agnes Marsala are fighting to make sure that Chesterfield isn’t next.
Armed with signs reading “Stop Warehouse Development in Your Town,” Marsala and dozens of other members of the local anti-warehouse organization Save Old York packed the meeting, anxious to make their voices heard.
But in Chesterfield, the debate is about more than weighing the pros and cons of building a warehouse. At its core, it's a story about a small community trying to preserve its identity in the face of big money and outside interests.
That effort will put Chesterfield’s local democratic process to the test.
The Question of Governance
At the center of the controversy is Old York Country Club, a 177-acre property located just six minutes off the New Jersey Turnpike and surrounded by farms.
Now defunct, the former country club features a golf course designed by South African golf legend Gary Player, a swimming pool, events space, and a historic home built in 1740.
The country club struggled financially for years before ceasing operations in 2021. The owners are now looking to sell the property to Active Acquisitions, a company that is responsible for developments in nearby townships such as Mansfield and Upper Freehold.
The proposal has generated a significant amount of controversy since the possibility of building a warehouse was first raised in 2020. The same debate is happening in communities around New Jersey.
Tim Evans is the director of research at New Jersey Future, an organization that studies state-wide land-use policy in New Jersey. He says that the expansion of warehouses in the state is tied to changes in international trade patterns, which have made the Port of Newark the second busiest port in the United States, after the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach.
Warehouse development hasn’t always been so disruptive to communities, Evans said. “In North Jersey, what happened initially is what groups like New Jersey Future would like to see happen. It was mostly redevelopment—most of the new warehouses popped up on land that had previously been used for some other industrial use.”
But as those sites have become fewer and farther in between, warehouse developers have been increasingly moving southward, buying land that is farther from the port but easily accessible to the highway networks that lead to the port, Evans explained.
New Jersey is a home-rule state, meaning that local municipalities have a high level of autonomy. But there is increasing awareness that properly managing warehouse development could require some action at the state level.
Recently, the state Office of Planning Advocacy released a set of guidelines to help municipalities better plan for warehouse development. However, attempts to pass legislation regulating warehouse development at the state level have repeatedly stalled, meaning that for now municipalities are largely on their own.
Balvir Singh, the Burlington County Commissioner, said that there is little that can be done at the county-wide level to control the development of warehouses because municipalities only involve the county after the warehouse has been built. “It starts with people selling their land because it’s more money. If the people never sold the land, if the municipalities never gave [warehouse developers] the pilot agreements, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Local Government in Action
In Chesterfield, as in other municipalities, the decision ultimately depends on one thing: good old-fashioned local democracy. It is part of what makes the debate so intense, and sometimes so personal, for residents of the township.
At the August 3rd meeting, most public comments, both for and against the warehouse, addressed economic and environmental concerns.
Those in favor of the warehouse plan argued that it will be a financial boon for the town, supplying an additional $1.8 million in taxes without meaningfully increasing the township’s expenditures.
This is attractive to some residents because a recent financial audit estimates that Chesterfield may exceed its municipal budget by over $1 million in as little as three years.
“I think it’s really important that everyone consider [building the warehouse],” said Chesterfield resident Sam Cannizaro at the August 3rd meeting. “We need to consider ways that we can create foundational services for the long haul.”
However, it is clear that building one warehouse won’t solve the township’s financial troubles on its own. Already in May, Mayor Panfili announced that building the warehouse was only expected to delay a referendum to increase taxes by two years.
Residents are also concerned about the environmental impacts of building a 1.134 million-square-foot warehouse on a property surrounded by wetlands. Under the current proposal, developers would convert nearly 40% of the 177 acres to impervious surfaces, which prevent rainwater from seeping into the ground and increase the likelihood of flooding. Other environmental concerns include air and noise pollution and the destruction of trees and habitats currently on the property.
Questions of Transparency
But public commentary at the August 3 meeting was not limited to arguments for and against the warehouse. Many residents spoke up to say that regardless of what they thought of the proposal, they were frustrated with the way local officials were handling the process.
Glenn Laynedecker, whose property borders the proposed warehouse, is one of the many residents who feel that the township committee has not done its due diligence. “There’s a lot of guessing and assumptions. Where are the facts? Where is the official research?” he asked. “We’re just not comfortable with the answers given or the process that we’ve been going through.”
Even the first step to building a warehouse on the property – changing the zoning from agricultural to industrial – has proven controversial. Although it goes against the township’s master plan, this possibility was raised when the township council declared the property an ‘area in need of rehabilitation.’
Brett Anderson, a Chesterfield resident and the president of the local anti-warehouse organization Save Old York believes that the area in need of rehabilitation designation was approved under dubious circumstances.
According to the Chesterfield Township Planning Board’s meeting minutes on May 19, 2020, the board recommended that the property be designated an area in need of rehabilitation under two criteria: the dilapidated state of some of the buildings and wastewater management violation flagged by the Department of Environmental Protection.
But Anderson is suspicious of this timeline. As he pointed out at the August 3 meeting, the wastewater management violation in question did not occur until after the planning board had already begun its investigation, which was paid for by the developers as part of an escrow agreement.
“I find it questionable that [the environmental violation] was then used as the justification for the area in need of rehabilitation, and that’s the foundation for all of this,” Anderson said.
What’s more, the violation, which was interpreted as severe enough to render the entire property ‘in need of rehabilitation,’ was cleaned up and resolved within a month of the township committee’s decision to designate the property in need of rehabilitation, which is what made the warehouse proposal possible.
But this lack of transparency is not the only thing holding back successful community discourse on the warehouse issue. Although more than 30 residents spoke at the August 3rd meeting, there are others who are wary of taking a public stance because of the divisive climate of the discussion, and the potential adverse consequences of speaking out against the township council.
“People are afraid to take positions because they fear the retribution of the planning boards and different committees,” Agnes Marsala said. “And it’s a real shame because government shouldn’t work that way.”
For now, the Chesterfield township committee has chosen to table the introduction of the ordinance that would allow for the warehouse to be built at Old York Country Club, pausing the development process temporarily.
As residents at the August 3rd meeting pointed out, there are a number of alternative development options for the township that might be more popular, and provide more financial opportunities, than building a warehouse.
Brett Anderson said he has spoken to three separate developers who have shown interest in restoring Old York Country Club as a golf course. Other residents suggested looking into sustainable agricultural alternatives for the property that would match its current zoning, and pointed out that a recently proposed ordinance to allow the cultivation of cannabis in Chesterfield could boost the township’s revenues while retaining the agricultural focus of the community.
These suggested alternatives speak to the heart of the debate within the community, which goes beyond the economic and environmental considerations.
“It’s like what we are doing to the planet on a very small scale,” said organic farmer and Chesterfield resident James Kinsel in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “We’re taking a place that is as close to God’s creation as you can find in Chesterfield, and we’re going to turn it into just the most obscene sea of concrete and asphalt.”
“It’s like the Joni Mitchell song,” Agnes Marsala added. “They want to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”