HOWELL – A surge in warehouse developments has some residents afraid that increased truck traffic will damage roads and increase the risk of accidents.
As concerns about the impact of warehouse development on traffic continue to grow, the Howell school board has added its voice to the conversation. At the governing body’s most recent meeting, Howell Board of Education President Al Miller asked the council to consider school bus transportation when conducting traffic studies related to approving more warehouses in the community.
Miller read a letter into the record expressing the school board’s concern about the safety of students and drivers during peak hours. The 5,600 students the district transports daily do not include the high school, private schools, and special routes sharing the same roadways.
“We ascertain you share our concern for the safety of students and drivers of our buses, as well as other vehicles on our roadways,” Miller read.
The Board requested that any traffic study or roadway evaluation consider the specific times and volumes of school transportation, emphasizing their willingness to provide statistical data to support the safety of their students.
Township Planner Jennifer Beahm made a special appearance at the council meeting as she had advance notice of Miller’s request. Beahm offered some clarification regarding traffic studies.
“We, as a township, do not do the traffic studies,” explained Beahm. “The applicant’s professionals do the traffic studies, and they do the traffic studies in the peak hours of the roadways.”
While the peak hours of school bus operation may be taken into consideration, the timing may not necessarily coincide with the overall peak hours of the roads. Therefore, the study includes an analysis of every vehicle on the roads during the morning peak, afternoon/evening peak, and also includes weekends.
The impact of tractor-trailer traffic on local roads stands out as a hot issue when it comes to warehouses. For example, a warehouse application for 29 Howell Road was denied twice before approval, with traffic cited as a consideration.
After the planning board’s rejection, the applicant took the township to court. Planning Board Attorney Ronald Cucchiaro said that the judge ruled against the traffic arguments made in support of previous denials.
Weight restrictions preclude large trucks from traveling on Howell Road, which means Okerson Road will serve as a means of egress and ingress for the planned warehouse.
According to local resident Marc Parisi, he contacted the council to suggest they introduce an ordinance to lift the weight restriction on a section of Howell Road between Vanderveer and Route 33. This would allow the Howell Road warehouse trucks to exit off Howell Road and use the on-ramp for Route 33 Bypass West. It would also reduce the number of trucks using Okerson Road to travel to Halls Mill Road.
“When they have events at the Little League field, there’s a lot of cars parked on the shoulder in that area,” said Parisi. “There are a lot of kids running back and forth across the road…and it just seems like it’s an unsafe condition.”
Parisi saw changing the weight restriction as an easy fix and pointed out the circulation element adopted last May as part of the Master Plan recommended lifting of the weight restriction. The result would allow for better truck circulation at the warehouse and reduce the number of trucks on the road by the Little League Field.
The claims that the planning board or government officials had explicitly stated their intention to remove weight restrictions on Howell Road were refuted by Beahm. However, a document titled “Howell Township Circulation Plan Element,” dated April 2022, refers to Vanderveer Road and proposes the evaluation of lifting weight restrictions at the intersection with Howell Road to the north.
“I already know that a tractor-trailer cannot make a turn at the intersection of Howell Road and Route 33,” said Councilman Fred Gasior. “I went through there 70 times in the last year, and every time I look at this road, I say a box truck can’t make a turn there, let alone a tractor-trailer. So we’re not going to do anything that’s going to allow that.”
Gasior said off-site traffic might be considered in future applications, but it did not appear viable. Beahm confirmed that off-site traffic cannot be evaluated under permitted use but only for ingress and egress.
In response to recent community concerns about the impact of warehousing on the town, Councilman Ian Nadel said he reached out to both the township manager and the land use director to address several issues.
One of the requests was to analyze truck routes and ensure that trucks are not traveling on residential roads where children are playing. Another issue raised is 24/7 operation, which Nadel noted needed to be managed carefully to avoid excessive noise disturbance. Finally, concerns about truck idling prompted a separate analysis.
“We took a look at the state ordinance for truck idling, and it defeated itself for our purposes,” said Matt Howard, Land Use Director. “It allowed idling when there’s temperature changes to keep the climate control inside the cab. It let a loud idling overnight for sleeping.”
Howard said the municipality would need to carefully draft a new ordinance that considers the state law to ensure it holds up. Similarly, with regard to 24/7 operation, the town is trying to avoid negatively impacting all businesses or being so specific that specific uses or properties are targeted.
The truck route process is extremely lengthy and local authorities are required to follow two chapters in state law. Any attempts to limit, restrict, or require truck traffic to take a certain route must have DOT approval and county officials’ approval.
“This includes traffic studies, crash data, volume data,” Howard shared. “And, if the data doesn’t support it, it’s right there in the law, it will be denied.”
Mayor Theresa Berger asked if there were options available to the town if there were concerns about the structural integrity of the roads not equipped to handle excessive weight. In the short term, there may not be much that can be done; however, zoning laws can be used to direct heavy traffic towards state and county roads.
There have been calls for trucking companies to share the burden of maintaining the roads they travel on, but legislation on this issue has stalled at the state level. Therefore, the township is exploring other options to protect their roads while still following the law.
A seven-page resolution passed by the governing body requests that changes be made to municipal land use law to assist municipalities in better dealing with the proliferation of warehouses.
“There are things we are doing at the local level, but some things are out of our control from the state level where we can only take limited practices into play with ingress and egress,” said Nadel. “I personally spoke to Assemblyman Sean Kean about this resolution, and he’s willing to get behind it and try to get something done at the state level.”
Nadel said that Howell wasn’t the only town having issues with a surge in warehouse applications. The hope is that revisions to existing statutes would give more control back to local municipalities.