Piscataway Residents Sue Zoning Board to Stop Warehouses Next to School, Park
Overburdened Environmental Justice Community Opposes Development on Wetlands
Piscataway, NJ – Last week, a dozen individuals and two grassroots community organizations filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey challenging the Piscataway Township Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision to approve a zoning variance for a 24.5-acre property. Earlier this year, the Zoning Board granted a use variance allowing the last undeveloped tract in the Township zoned for rural residential development to be developed with two warehouses, approximately 185,000 square feet and 175,000 square feet in size, next to the Randolphville Elementary School and across the street from a long-promised Ecological Park at the site of the former Halper Farm.
The warehouses would add 60 truck bays next to the neighborhood school, where 50 teachers and staff educate nearly 500 young students in kindergarten through third grade. Nearly three quarters of Piscataway residents are people of color and the township has an “F” rating from the American Lung Association for air quality. Piscataway is identified as an overburdened community under the state’s groundbreaking Environmental Justice (EJ) Law. The rules for the new EJ law are being promulgated by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, and proximity to warehouses and distribution centers is high on the list of unequal health stressors it includes.
“I went to Randolphville Elementary School and am deeply concerned about the health and well-being of the children that will attend Randolphville in the future,” said Sazha Alexandra Ramos, the lead plaintiff for the case who lives near the proposed warehouse site. Ramos, a Navy veteran, social worker and person in long term recovery, is a long time resident of Piscataway who returned to Piscataway after years in public service to care for her parents.
Organized by the Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization and the Piscataway Youth Progressive Organization, the lawsuit seeks to overturn the Zoning Board’s decision on the grounds that it was arbitrary and capricious. The Board failed to adequately weigh the pros and cons of the change in use that ultimately led to an approval that was not in the best interest of the community.
“We strongly believe that the developer failed to provide, and the Board failed to consider, a comprehensive list of pros and cons. They did not even indicate the proximity to Randolphville Elementary School, which residents had to investigate on our own. The Board did not take the impact on our air quality or our children’s health into consideration at all,” said plaintiff Kamuela “Nikki” Tillman, a neighborhood leader in an area that sends students to the school and former Middlesex County Democratic Committee Member.
Scores of people attended and opposed the development of the warehouses during the Zoning Board Zoom hearings in late 2020, but no additional testimony was permitted prior to the vote in March 2021. The Piscataway Township Education Association and Piscataway faith leaders joined over 350 residents in an open letter to the Zoning Board and the Township Council, urging them to reject the application. The project developer is M&M Realty, operated by frequent Democratic Party donor Jack Morris and his wife.
The open letter notes, “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.”
Adopted last year, the EJ law would help Piscataway and other communities whose residents are a majority people of color and are overburdened by developments like these. The project also requires waivers from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection because there are wetlands on the property. The rules for the EJ law are not yet fully in place, but residents are urging the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to hold an EJ hearing on this case, which would be required when the rules are in effect, and to extend the public comment period regarding the wetlands waiver application.
“This is the wrong development in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Syed Shoaib, a neighborhood leader and plaintiff in the case. “NJ is moving towards protecting communities, like Piscataway, that have been harmed by environmental racism. Our local officials should be protecting the environment and addressing climate change, not building warehouses near schools,” he said.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include: Randolphville Elementary School parent Pratik Patel; neighbors near to the property: Dr. Tom Connors, former Board of Education President and the former Middlesex County Democratic Organization member from the impacted area, Dan and Sarah Jackson and Matthew Knoblauch; residents Shantell Cherry, Zoe Scotto and Ralph Johnson (as private citizens and not in their capacity as members of the Board of Education; they do not represent or speak for the Board of Education); and Staci Berger, Middlesex County Democratic Organization member in the Heights neighborhood. The full text of the lawsuit is available here.
Originally Appeared Here