‘Tidal wave’ of new warehouses pushes residents out, changes coastal Georgia landscape
Dennis Baxter spent two decades as the city manager of Pooler ushering the once-sleepy town of 2,500 residents into a new era of booming residential and commercial growth.
Now, as mayor of Bloomingdale, he’s also encouraging development in this town where he’s lived for half a century. At least, up to a point.
He hit his limit of what’s good for business and the community this year when an industrial warehouse rose up across the street from his and his wife’s parents’ family homes. The land once home to one of the oldest operating farms in the county now is filled with concrete slabs and construction debris.
“I’m very development-oriented, but I like to see it in the right perspective and the right amount,” Baxter said. “We never dreamed this would happen. You get on I-16 and turn west – it’s like, ‘Holy Moly!’”
Hundreds of warehouses like the one near Baxter’s property are changing large swaths of Coastal Georgia’s landscape. At least 100 million square feet of warehouse space has been built in Chatham, Bryan, Effingham, Liberty and Jasper counties, and another 16 million square feet are expected to be finished this year to support the Port of Savannah’s booming business.
That’s the equivalent of nearly 2,000 football fields of concrete and storage space in areas that, for the most part, used to be family-owned farms, woodlands and empty pasture.
Not only do the mega warehouses impact residents’ quality of life, but the change is turning some communities against each other. Meanwhile, regional officials offer no integrated development plan or firm data about how the tidal wave of investment will benefit these communities either through the number of promised jobs or tax payments.
“This is an issue in all of the counties in Coastal Georgia,” said Jamal Toure, a community leader in Monteith. “What are we going to do about it? Are we going to sit idly by and watch as other people get taken out?”
What’s causing growth?
Warehouses have been popping up across Coastal Georgia because they’re an integral step in the supply chain process and vital to the Port of Savannah’s success, experts say.
Consumer products are loaded into containers, primarily in Asia, and shipped to Savannah. Those containers then get unloaded at warehouses, where employees sort products and ship them to their final customers.
“We’re kind of the cornerstone of the supply chain,” said Bill Crow, the executive director of the Southeastern Warehouse Association. “We don’t make it, and we don’t buy or sell it, but we’re the everything in the middle.”
Growth at the Port of Savannah, supercharged during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the layers of road and railroad infrastructure makes the area around Savannah ideal for warehouses, he said.
“We’re riding a wave, and I think it’s a wave that will go on for a very long time – this is an enduring trend,” Jeff Humphreys, the director of a logistics study the University of Georgia’s business school published in 2022. “We got an outside share of that growth and it stuck, even though the pandemic has passed, demand has continued to increase.”
But what’s good for the port may not be good for the individual communities trying to absorb the new churn.
When municipal and county governments approve zoning requests for warehouses, many warehouse developers don’t know who their corporate tenants will be. The demand for space right now is so high, it is a good gamble for developers, Crow said. However, the number of jobs a warehouse brings and the amount those jobs pay depends on what type of company uses the space.
Individual counties and towns are not demanding guaranteed job creation from the warehouse developers, and they aren’t doing a good job of tracking job numbers.
Warehouses employ about 3,000 people in Bryan and Effingham, according to official statistics from those counties. The Savannah Economic Development Authority is seeking that statistic.
The average warehouse worker in Georgia makes $15 an hour, according to Indeed, an American worldwide employment website.
Meanwhile, counties are not making a case to their residents for how the new development is affecting their tax base.
About 15% of Effingham County’s property taxes – approximately $1.2 billion – come from industrial property, according to the county’s tax assessor. However, the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority does not break down how much of that comes from warehouses. And Chatham County does not keep track of how much money in property taxes warehouses bring in, according to a representative from the county tax commissioner.
The Georgia Ports Authority itself sees only the upside of warehouse development. The port directly and indirectly supports more than half a million jobs and contributes $33 billion in income in Georgia.
David Sink, who writes quarterly reports on the Savannah industry for Colliers real estate brokerage firm, says there is a direct link to the port’s growth and the amount of warehouse growth around Coastal Georgia.
Humphreys, meanwhile, is even more direct. “It’s hard to think of a negative” related to the growth of warehouses and the transportation, logistics, distribution and warehousing industry, he said.
How is this impacting the community?
Jen Hilburn, an advocate from the nonprofit One Hundred Miles who has been collecting data about warehouses, begs to differ.
As she sees it, those rosy economic reports don’t include the negative feedback she has heard from community members at packed public meetings for the last several months.
Those residents are united in opposition to warehouses, she says.
“Every meeting I went to was packed,” Hilburn said. “The room was packed, they were packed out into the hallways, in the front, and people were fighting over a buffer variance, and things that nobody used to know what that meant.”
The residents of Buckhalter Road, about 15 minutes southwest of downtown Savannah, were among those at the Chatham County Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting on July 25, where discussion over a planning map led to a heated conversation over the future of their neighborhood.
With construction underway at the old Rockingham Farms property, the warehouse developer has offered to buy nine homes along the old property line of the new Rockingham Farm Industrial Park. Right now, a 20-foot barrier of sparse trees separates the industrial development from residential areas.
Patricia McKenzie, who has lived on Buckhalter Road for more than 40 years, has a large property with an expansive garden, goats, chickens and turkeys, a lifestyle she says she would lose if she sold off to the developer and moved.
But her fear of staying on Buckhalter and seeing her quiet life transform to one surrounded by near-constant noise and truck traffic prompted her to sell to the warehouse developer.
“They didn’t really leave us any choice but to hope that they buy our property,” she said.
Gerita Joubert, another resident, said she always knew this was a possibility, given her proximity to a growing city like Savannah. But, “I just hate that it has to be our neighborhood,” she added.
Further northwest, in Bloomingdale, change is happening at a similar pace, despite opposition by Mayor Baxter and hundreds of other residents.
Before being elected mayor, the prior city council had approved nearly 40 warehouses around his town.
Now, Baxter is seeing an exodus of his neighbors as the McCraney Property Company builds on what used to be Ottawa Farms, across from his family home.
Although construction is still underway, the transformation of the once bucolic setting has been radical. Noise pollution is the worst change, he said. The newly built industrial building acts as an amplifier so that when trains pass through, their whistles bounce off the warehouse walls as a deafening pitch, Baxter said.
Other rural communities worry the same plight might happen in their corner of paradise.
Four sisters, whose family has lived along Old Augusta Road in Rincon for five generations, rejoiced this summer when the property owner of a proposed warehouse withdrew its plans for across from the sisters’ family home.
But the sisters believe it’s a matter of when – not if – another warehouse gets approved on the site.
“We are feeling fearful,” said Joann Wilson, one of the sisters who lives on Old Augusta.
The family has no desire to sell, or leave the area. It’s hard for them even to contemplate a different life.
“It’s hard for you to buy another house. You’re 78 years old, you’re retired, you’re on a fixed income. How are you going to afford it?” asked Deacon Florida Hunt, who is married to one of the sisters. “Nobody understands what low income families are going through.”
Jamal Toure, a community leader in Monteith and a lecturer of African Studies at Georgia Southern University, says he’s been trying to warn people about the depletion of historic Black populations in rural Coastal Georgia. He believes the alarm about the swift pace of warehouse growth is due to white families and communities being displaced, too.
“African Americans in Chatham County and Coastal Georgia have been the bellwether for the issues here that begin to impact everybody,” Toure said.
What about the land?
With so much former farmland being paved over with concrete, conservationists are concerned about the medium-and long-term effects on the ecologies of Coastal Georgia.
Alone, one warehouse isn’t likely to cause too much disruption, conservation experts say. But when you examine the phenomenon as a whole, vast acreage is morphing from farmland and wetlands with ample trees and wildlife to millions of square feet of rooftops and parking lots that cannot absorb rainfall.
Not only will replacing vegetation with buildings and blacktop lead to water runoff that needs to be collected to prevent flooding, but there’s a risk the water will have contaminants from the warehouses, according to Susan Inman, mid-coast advocate with One Hundred Miles.
Georgia’s wetlands act as its kidneys, she said, filtering water into our estuaries. But as with human kidneys, there’s a limit to their functioning.
“This water has a high potential of having contaminants in it,” Inman said.
If any contaminants from warehouses flow into the water supply, “you’re decreasing the productivity of the wetlands in filtrating good water into our estuaries,” she continued.
However, Jeff Ricketson, the executive director of the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission, says the local standards for warehouse construction should minimize these risks, and any potential runoff is required to be caught, held and released at the same rate as it would before the warehouse was built.
“You’re not suddenly throwing a whole 50 acres worth of water at once,” Ricketson said. “That’s supposed to make things no different than they were before the development.”
At the same time, though, developers are building warehouses as cheaply as possible. Often, this means environmentally friendly measures – like installing solar panels on the roofs, laying surfaces that can soak up water and building channels that slowly spread rainfall instead of stormwater ponds that collect it – are skipped in favor of more cost-effective methods, Hilburn said.
“We are losing a landscape of trees and wildlife, we are threatening our rivers and we’re destroying communities,” Hilburn said. “How can anyone argue to me that the way we’re doing this is good?”
This story was provided by WABE content partner The Current.