Warehouse boom is called a threat to coastal communities
Environmental groups say water quality, people and wildlife are at risk.
The Port of Savannah was the first container terminal in the Southeast or Gulf Coast to move 5 million 20-foot equivalent container units in a fiscal year. JEREMY POLSTON/GEORGIA PORTS AUTHORITY
With so many warehouses being built to serve the Port of Savannah, environmental groups warn it could put the quality of coastal life at risk. COURTESY

Fueled by Georgia’s expanding ports, an explosion in large-scale warehouses is putting water quality and communities at risk along the coasts of Georgia and southern South Carolina, a coalition of environmental organizations warned Monday. Roughly 200 million square feet of warehouse space is either operating or under construction in coastal Georgia and just across the Savannah River in Jasper County, according to data compiled by the groups.

“We are alarmed at the unchecked, uncoordinated warehouse growth happening throughout the lower Savannah River watershed in both Georgia and South Carolina,” said Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus.

“The lack of coordination threatens evacuation corridors, has already put Savannah’s drinking water at high risk and threatens the area’s resiliency.”

More than 50 million square feet of warehouses built in Savannah area In Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties, a combined 124 new warehouse facilities totaling nearly 52 million square feet have been added over the past five years alone, according to data gathered through an open source app developed by the group, comprising One Hundred Miles, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, the Savannah Riverkeeper, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, Georgia Green and the Georgia Conservancy.

Those buildings cover nearly 1,200 acres.

Moving goods from a port to a nearby warehouse rather than directly to distant distribution centers can save companies money by making ground transport more efficient.

The push for streamlined supply chains has driven demand for coastal mega-storage sites nationwide, including near the Port of Savannah.

More than 4 million square feet of space was added in the third quarter of 2023 in Bryan, Chatham, Effingham and Liberty counties in Georgia, and South Carolina’s Jasper County, according to the market research firm CBRE.

“The ongoing pursuit by tenants to take advantage of market accessibility, the efficiencies of the Port of Savannah, and Class A new construction space, has caused leasing activity to surge almost 150% quarter-over-quarter,” CBRE noted in its analysis.

However, vacancy rates for warehouse and distribution facilities in the region climbed from less than 1% in the first quarter to more than 7% for the third quarter, according to the report.

“Supply is catching up to demand in the market,” CBRE said.

“With new deliveries moderating and consistent leasing activity, vacancy is expected to peak by the end of this year.”

Proliferation of concrete, loss of trees threatens drinking water quality, public safety, wildlife habitat The Port of Savannah’s continued growth will push more warehouse development with little consideration of the facilities’ impact on people and nature, the environmental groups predicted Monday.

“The lack of coordination and oversight puts our neighborhoods and environment at risk,” said Jen Hilburn, north coast advocate with the One Hundred Miles organization.

“Transforming such vast lands from dirt to concrete is already causing drainage problems for neighboring communities, a drastic uptick in truck traffic and safety concerns, and threatens our drinking water.”

An analysis by the Ogeechee Riverkeepers organization estimates that more than 800 acres of wetlands have been filled for warehouses in Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties since January 2020.

“These wetlands filter pollutants, protect communities from flooding and guard against storm surge,” explained Ogeechee Riverkeeper Damon Mullis.

“And once they are gone, they can no longer serve those essential functions for our communities.”

Critics also fear the potential impact of new large-scale buildings on Black-owned land in the heart of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor.

“If we continue allowing unfettered warehouse development within historic communities like Monteith and Buckhalter, we are allowing the erasure of a foundational aspect of Georgia’s history,” said Josiah “Jazz”

Watts, justice strategist at One Hundred Miles and a Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor commissioner.

“Generational lands owned by Black families are being surrounded by warehouses built on land sold by white neighbors. Every week, Black families are being divided, fractured and pushed out of their ancestral homes.”

While a handful of communities have taken steps to prevent new warehouses, a coordinated effort by coastal counties would broaden that effort, Hilburn of One Hundred Miles noted.

“The goal is to build toward more resilient neighborhoods — those able to withstand adversity and trauma and bounce back from disasters,” she said.

“Instead of approving more unnecessary warehouses that are fracturing our communities and our heritage, our elected officials need to focus on community-driven planning for our water, greenspace, community, wastewater and other urgent concerns.”