We Piscataway residents like to think of our town as a model middle American community with tree-lined neighborhoods, good schools and local parks. But increasingly, these assets compete with a harsher reality: Piscataway has become a hot spot for warehouse sprawl along the I-287 corridor, adding vast walls of concrete, diesel truck emissions, congestion and land loss to the picture.
The most alarming new proposal would allow two more warehouses on one of the last wooded properties in town, the 25-acre parcel at 1690 South Washington Ave. What’s the fuss about 60 more diesel truck bays, when the town has added over 1,000 since 2015?
This parcel borders the Randolphville Elementary School, attended by nearly 500 K-3 students and over 45 teachers and staff members. Developers have ALREADY been allowed to put 186 truck bays on the north side of the school property, more than 100 added in the last six years. Clearly, our Mayor, Council and Zoning Board aren’t considering the serious health risks posed by diesel truck emissions and truck traffic, especially to young children with developing lungs.
Air quality studies conclusively show that truck emissions contribute to asthma, allergies, decreased lung function, and long-term health problems that include respiratory damage, cardio-vascular disease, COPD, and lung cancer. During the pandemic, we’ve discovered that air pollution also correlates with COVID 19 morbidity rates. Sure, the chemical plants along the Raritan River corridor are long gone, but logistical centers are taking their place as significant environmental threats.
Diesel emissions include nitric oxide, which interacts with ground level ozone to further reduce air quality—our area already earns an ‘F’ from the American Lung Association for ground level ozone. And even with recent improvements in fuels and filters, diesel truck emissions contain particulate matter (PM2.5) that is especially damaging when exposures are nearby, recurring, concentrated and cumulative. Like at an elementary school with potentially 230 truck bays on its property line, next to its playgrounds, drop-off sites and classroom windows.
How could the Piscataway Zoning Board NOT consider this a deal breaker? After all, the developer for the 1690 S. Washington warehouses needs the Board to RE-ZONE a rural/residential parcel with irreplaceable freshwater wetlands and woods. They can just say NO to re-zoning.
Unfortunately, saying NO would buck the Mayor’s strategy of turning Piscataway into a “logistical hub” for the I-287 corridor, serving the new on-demand economy. It’s an expedient strategy that has allowed giant warehouse complexes to pop up along River Rd. North, Old New Brunswick Road, Centennial Ave., South Randolphville and South Washington. It’s a strategy that also includes big tax breaks for mega-developers, lowering their property assessments and giving them PILOT deals (payments in lieu of taxes), which exempt them from paying school and library taxes.
The Randolphville Elementary School is not the only vulnerable location. As the economy resurges, more and more trucks will be idling next to the high school playing fields, next to the Muslim Center and the United Methodist Church, near the Senior Center, the Library and the new Y, near the Schorr Middle School and Grandview Elementary, the River Road apartments, Possumtown, and all the neighborhoods along the truck routes. The Mayor even got trees removed at the Arbor Intermediate School to modify the road for truck traffic.
How will Piscataway home values fare when the COVID housing boom fades, and house-hunters add air quality and scenic landscapes to their preferences? How will our Niche ratings look if we’ve jeopardized the tax base of our good schools and put our children at risk for truck depots?
Inconvenient truths are hard, but necessary to face. The ugly fact is: Mayor Wahler and his Council have pursued their low-road development strategy over the past 20 years as Piscataway has transitioned from a majority white town to being 73% people of color. There’s a long-established pattern of environmental injustice in New Jersey that follows this demographic shift: replacing green spaces with polluting industries, eroding the tax base of schools and public services, isolating residential neighborhoods, and stonewalling environmental concerns.
This pattern has been recognized by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection in a landmark environmental justice law passed last September. When the EJ rules are finalized this fall, a proposal like the one to re-zone 1690 South Washington would require approval by the DEP Division of Environmental Justice. We are already recognized as an overburdened community, and proximity to warehouses and distribution centers is high on the list of unequal health stressors.
Environmental racism in Piscataway? The Mayor and Council will protest, the Zoning Board will scoff. But environmental justice isn’t just about diverse faces in public spaces, it’s about equal protection from pollution and health risks.
We call on the Zoning Board and Township Council to oppose the re-zoning of 1690 South Washington.
We’re not counting on their enlightenment, however. We’re fighting for our kids to go to safe and healthy schools. We’re fighting for our quality of life in Piscataway and for our right to breathe clean air. We’ve requested a public hearing from the DEP EJ Division. And we’re circulating a petition to take to the Zoning Board and the Council. Please join us at:
Piscataway Township Education Association
Tim Simonitis, President
Rev. Dr. Leonard Hampton, Pastor, Zion Hill Baptist Church
Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization
Staci Berger, President
Piscataway/Middlesex Co Democratic Organization, Ward 3, District 2
Laura Leibowitz, PTEA Building Representative, PHS
Piscataway/Middlesex Co Democratic Organization, Ward 3, District 10
Dr. Atif Nazir
Laura and Ed Kasaukas
Dafna and Peter Lemish
Kamuela Nikki Tillman
Mindy Goldstein Walsh
Dr. Tom Connors