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Voter referendum for new warehouses proposed

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(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania voters should approve warehouses planned in their communities, according to a new bill pending in the state House of Representatives.

Rep. Joe Emrick, R-Upper Nazareth, said the facilities cause environmental and lifestyle disruptions, from increased truck traffic to air, sound and light pollution.

“While high-impact warehouses and distribution centers are approved by local governments, the people who are most affected – the community – have no say in whether they should become part of the fabric of our region,” he said in a release.

Emrick’s House Bill 1960 would require approval by voter referendum for warehouses or distribution centers “of regional significance at least 100,000 square feet in size and on three acres of land or more.”

“I have heard loud and clear from local officials about the need for more local control in the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code,” Emrick said, noting that his intention with the bill is “to maximize local control by giving the people a voice at the ballot box in the final approval of these high-impact warehouses.”

“This way the community can say with one voice when and how this kind of growth should continue,” he said.

PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group, recently raised similar concerns about the unfettered growth of the online shopping industry and the multi-billion dollar logistics and distribution network at its core.

During a webinar in September, PennFuture offered a framework for local officials to consider that they say closes loopholes developers exploit to build properties larger than envisioned under existing rules.

Gone are traditional warehouses, the group said, that used to serve as storage only. Now, roughly 3,300 fulfillment centers – for companies like Amazon, UPS and Chewy – exist across Pennsylvania, employing more than 54,000 people, according to state data.

Brigitte Meyer, staff attorney for PennFuture and author of the model ordinance guidebook, said “simply inadequate” zoning ordinances have failed to regulate these “massive, traffic-intensive facilities popping up all over the place.

“Municipalities need to review and update their ordinances to address the impacts of the modern logistics industry, and they need to do it now before Amazon shows up on their doorstep with plans for a 1.5 million-square-foot distribution center,” she said.

In response to PennFuture’s framework, The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry raised concerns about balancing economic and environmental priorities.

The chamber also pointed to data that shows the state lost 40,000 residents to domestic migration in 2022, many of whom left for economic opportunity elsewhere. Pennsylvania’s shrinking pool of workers and growing population of retirees generates collective anxiety among policymakers who worry about future economic stability.

Both PennFuture and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry declined to comment on Emrick’s proposal since no bill language is available yet to review.

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