By Kurtis Lee | The New York Times
From the front yard of her ranch-style home, Pam Lemos peered out on the vast valley of her childhood.
She can still picture the way it looked back in the 1980s — citrus groves blanketing hillsides, dairy farms stretching for acres, and horses grazing under a bright blue sky. These days, when she looks toward the horizon, she mainly sees the metal roofs of hulking warehouses.
“Now it’s all industrial,” said Lemos, 55, who has lived in Colton her entire life. “We are working to change that and starting with these warehouses.”
Lemos is part of a growing coalition of residents and leaders in Colton and neighboring cities — a logistical hub for the nation — who are increasingly frustrated with the proliferation of warehouses in the region, as well as the side effects of the rapid expansion.
As warehouse construction has ballooned nationwide, residents in communities both rural and urban have pushed back. Neighborhood apps such as Nextdoor and Facebook groups have been flooded with complaints over construction. In California, the anger has turned to widespread action.
Several cities in the Inland Empire have passed ordinances in recent months halting new warehouse projects so officials can study the effects of pollution and congestion on residents like Lemos. Similar local moratoriums have cropped up in New York and New Jersey in recent years but on a much smaller scale.
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Labor groups and business coalitions have entered the fray, warning that the new ordinances — along with a push in the state Legislature to widen the restrictions — will cost the region tax revenue and needed jobs and could further disrupt a shaky national supply chain.
Jonathan Gold, a vice president at the National Retail Federation, among the industry’s largest trade groups, said “placing a ban or moratorium on building new distribution centers or warehouses while we continue to experience a supply chain crisis is not good policy.”
“Building new capacity will help address a significant supply chain issue, and will also create employment opportunities,” Gold said.
The Inland Empire, where the population has quadrupled to 4.6 million in the last 50 years as people were priced out of places closer to Los Angeles, is a critical storage-and-sorting point because of its proximity to rail lines that are a short jaunt from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, global hubs that handle 40% of the nation’s seaborne imports.
In the early 1990s, there were about 650 warehouses in the region, according to a data tool from Pitzer College in Claremont, California. By last year, there were nearly 4,000.
A residentâs backyard view of trucks at a warehouse, in Colton, Calif., Sept. 21, 2022. Several municipalities in the Inland Empire, a logistics hub, have halted warehouse construction to study their impact on pollution and congestion. (Alex Welsh/The New York Times)
Amazon is a major presence, with more than a dozen warehouses in the Inland Empire. Although it is slowing its warehouse expansion nationally and has closed or mothballed some buildings, it is constructing a five-story, 4 million-square-foot facility in the city of Ontario. The warehouse, which is scheduled to be completed in 2024 as one of the company’s largest in the nation, will provide jobs for roughly 1,500 people.
Susan Phillips, a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer who has studied the growth of warehouses in the Inland Empire, says the only way to regulate construction is through the municipal planning process.
“Warehouse growth is totally demand-driven,” Phillips said. “Developers and many municipalities do not want any regulation on this, and at this point warehouses are growing at many times the rate of population growth.”
Since 2020, elected officials in a half-dozen Inland Empire cities, including Riverside, its most populous, have imposed moratoriums on warehouse construction. The timeouts are meant to assess, among other things, the effects of pollution, the appropriate distances between homes and warehouses, and the effect of heavy truck traffic on streets.
Tucked in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains, Colton has long been known as “Hub City” because it is a crossing of two railroads — BNSF and Union Pacific — that shuttle cargo to and from the ports. Today, the city of 54,000 is home to 58 licensed warehouses.
Isaac Suchil, a councilman who sponsored a moratorium on warehouses, in Colton, Calif., Sept. 21, 2022. Several municipalities in the Inland Empire, a logistics hub, have halted warehouse construction to study their impact on pollution and congestion. (Alex Welsh/The New York Times)
Isaac Suchil, a councilperson in Colton, was a sponsor of his city’s moratorium, which was recently extended through May 2023. While he stresses that he is not “anti-warehouse,” Suchil said he would like to see buffer zones requiring that new facilities be at least 300 feet from schools and residential areas. The current requirements vary and are applied differently from project to project, he said.
“The moratorium gives us time to address future projects,” he said.
Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, who represents several Inland Empire cities including Colton, has taken the fight to Sacramento, the state capital. She sponsored a bill this year that would require new logistics projects in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that are 100,000 square feet or larger to be at least 1,000 feet from homes, schools and health care centers.
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“The warehouses bring with them trucks producing diesel particulate matter,” Gómez Reyes said, noting an American Lung Association report this year that found that those counties were among the worst for annual particulate pollution.
Gómez Reyes, who withdrew her bill from consideration after struggling to find votes, even among fellow Democrats who dominate the Legislature, said she planned to reintroduce the measure next year.
The efforts to suspend and regulate warehouse construction have faced staunch opposition from groups including the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents construction workers in the United States, and the California Chamber of Commerce.
Jennifer Barrera, CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, said a measure like the one put forth by Gómez Reyes would hurt job growth and apply a one-size-fits-all approach that would strip local jurisdictions of necessary freedom around land-use decisions.
In the first half of 2022, there were roughly 135,400 warehouse jobs in the Inland Empire, according to the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, a group that works with business and government leaders. In 2010, there were roughly 19,900 warehouse jobs in the region.
“A warehouse ban would only exacerbate the goods movement and logistics backlogs California consumers are facing,” Barrera said. “With more people ordering goods online and wanting quick delivery, the need for storage space is growing.”
But some local residents are tired of feeling that their region is losing out on more than it is gaining.
This summer, a deal was reached to relocate an elementary school in Bloomington to make space for a warehouse, and earlier this year, the city council in Ontario approved the construction of a warehouse on the site of an area that was once home to a dairy farm. In both instances, residents voiced their frustration on social media and at public meetings.
“For too long it’s been build, build, build, with no repercussions,” said Alicia Aguayo, a member of the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice, a group that has pushed for some of the moratoriums.
Aguayo, a lifelong resident of the Inland Empire, said that in recent years she has met more and more people in her community who have asthma and cancer. She would like to see more resources dedicated to studying the health effects of pollution in the region.
“It’s environmental racism and hitting mostly Latino communities,” Aguayo said.
Last year, Southern California officials adopted rules for warehouses that aim to cut truck pollution and reduce health risks.
The regulations from the South Coast Air Quality Management District require large warehouses to curb or offset emissions from their operations or pay fees that go toward air-quality improvements.
In San Bernardino, where a proposed effort last year fell one council vote shy of establishing a 45-day moratorium on the construction of new warehouses, Morris Donald has witnessed the warehouse boom from his backyard.
For 11 years, he has rented a three-bedroom home in a neighborhood now surrounded by four warehouses. In recent years, he said, most of the neighbors he knew have moved away and several landlords have sold to developers.
“It’s taken away the neighborhood feel,” Donald said. “Kids don’t play outside. No one is in their yards.”
But he sees the benefits as well — he works as a forklift mechanic at a Quiksilver warehouse, his wife is a manager at another, and his son works as a security guard at a third facility.
“If you want jobs,” Donald said, “they’re out here in the warehouses, and that’s a fact.”
In Colton, Lemos spends some of her free time volunteering for groups that work closely with the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice. The moratorium, she said, could not have come soon enough.
“How did this get so out of control?” Lemos said, noting that in the months before the moratorium was enacted, the city approved a pair of warehouses with a combined square footage of 1.8 million.
On a recent afternoon, Lemos twisted her Jeep Wrangler along a winding two-lane road, which was pockmarked with potholes left behind, she said, from the semitrucks that shuttle goods from warehouses. The air was thick, and a line of smog hovered along the horizon. A horn from an incoming train pierced the air.
“There is always something going on here — trucks, trains, construction from warehouses,” she said. “It’s like we’re living in this logistical bubble while trying to raise our families.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.