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Distribution Centers Bring into Focus Limitations of Local Zoning Laws

by Donna Kohut, Campaign Manager
Tobyhanna Creek

Northeast Pennsylvania’s growing proliferation of large-scale distribution centers is threatening the high-quality waterways of the Pocono Mountains. This region is home to a high concentration of special protection streams – some of the healthiest waters in the state – and serves as the headwaters of the Delaware River. While High Quality and Exceptional Value waters do receive legal protection, irresponsible and poorly sited development projects can still cause degradation when local land use policies fail to uphold these protections.

The approval process for land use projects can be cumbersome and difficult to follow, but a recent decision made by local officials in Monroe County provides an excellent example of why paying close attention to zoning ordinances can be advantageous. On October 26, the Coolbaugh Township Zoning Hearing Board voted unanimously to deny a special exception for a 426,000-square-foot distribution center. The project was pitched as a "warehouse" and proposed for a 48-acre tract of land located in a commercial district. While warehouses are a permitted use in this district as a special exception, “distribution centers” are not, and the developer did not demonstrate that it adhered to the definition of a warehouse. The township had thoughtful zoning on the books. Applying these zoning ordinances ensured that the proposed use was appropriately sited. 

First, some background on zoning practices. While municipalities in Pennsylvania must legally allow for every "use" within its borders, zoning districts determine where those uses are located. Districts include but are not limited to commercial, industrial, residential, and open space. Within those districts, municipal officials can list which uses are automatically allowed, which are not allowed, and which require a special exemption that will need to meet conditions placed on the project by officials. 

Initial zoning ordinances did not anticipate the large-scale industrial nature of distribution centers, which are vastly different from what was considered a "warehouse" 10, 20, 50 years ago. This means that warehouses and distribution centers are likely no longer appropriate uses in commercial or village districts, as they were previously considered. 

It is critical to note the distinction made in the zoning ordinance between warehouses and distribution centers. Essentially, a warehouse is designed for the indoor storage, transfer, and distribution of goods, but crucially, it does not include a truck terminal. Meanwhile, a distribution center receives, stores, and distributes goods. This definition includes the redistribution and consolidation of orders, as well as the storage, parking, and servicing of trucks. The distinction is clear. While the township did not decide that the proposed project was a distribution center, they did determine that the applicant failed to show that it was a warehouse.

In short, the Coolbaugh Township Zoning Hearing Board’s decision last month utilized the tools it had under its zoning ordinance to ensure that this type of large-scale industrial development was appropriately sited in the township.

This is a critical victory for special protection streams in the Poconos. Had the Coolbaugh project moved forward, stormwater on the property would have naturally flowed into the Tobyhanna, a High Quality creek, increasing the likelihood of degradation. Thermal impacts and contamination from salt and chemicals carried by stormwater runoff can create a potentially toxic environment for wildlife. Additionally, the paved surface of parking lots also generally increases and speeds up the flow of runoff into streams, leading to more frequent and severe flooding events.

Unless municipalities take a watershed-wide approach to land use, industrial development risks causing "death by a thousand cuts" to local waterways. Long-lasting and devastating impacts are magnified when one distribution center turns into many. Just a single 300,000-square-foot distribution center can cause long-lasting negative impacts on the environment through stormwater pollution. But consider the massive impact of several of these projects in a condensed area. 

For example, in Pocono and Jackson Township, there are upwards of four warehouses being proposed, totalling over 1.5 million square feet, all within a few miles of each other and some projects proposed on adjacent properties. Our streams will not be all that suffers from this onslaught as neighboring homes and businesses will have to contend with air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, and traffic impacts. While one distribution center may make sense in a properly sited industrial zone, it is less sensible to develop several all within a commercial zone bordering homes or special protection streams. When municipalities review their zoning ordinances, the cumulative impacts of multiple large-scale projects must be considered because the harm caused to the environment and surrounding communities becomes exponential. 

County-wide or multi-municipality planning and zoning could provide for just this type of holistic approach to warehouse and distribution center development. If the zoning issues in the Poconos are not addressed, this region known for clean water, clean air, open space, and outdoor recreation will be unrecognizable as it evolves into a busy industrial zone with poor air quality, degraded streams, and traffic congestion.

Coolbaugh Township was lucky to have – and apply – zoning that recognized these issues. Similarly, Pocono Township is attempting to be responsive to the threat by beginning the curative amendment process to fix problems with its zoning related to distribution centers and warehouses. 

More than 98 percent of Pocono residents believe that more must be done to protect local waterways from large-scale commercial and industrial development.

As the saying goes, "we all live downstream." It is not just the immediate community and ecosystem that will experience the consequences of development-fueled degradation. Neighboring communities and even those that live miles downstream will feel the impact. Our pristine Pocono streams protect the quality of drinking water for 13 million people that live downstream, and they also contribute to the health of the region's outdoor recreation economy. These outstanding waters must be considered when making consequential land use decisions. 

The proliferation of distribution centers provides municipal officials reason to take a more holistic approach toward their zoning ordinances. They have widespread support among residents, who have been showing up to meetings in droves, demanding action. Our local leaders have the tools at their fingertips. Now is the time to act before it's too late.

Photo courtesy Nicholas_T/Flickr

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