State, local officials talk about farm preservation

Development pressure
threatens viability of local
agriculture, they say

By jane meggitt
Staff Writer

State, local officials talk
about farm preservation
Development pressure
threatens viability of local
agriculture, they say
By jane meggitt
Staff Writer

Even if they disagree on the best way to accomplish it, keeping farmers in the area is an often-stated priority among officials.

A regional meeting on the Agricultural Smart Growth Plan for New Jersey, which many local officials attended, was held at the Upper Freehold municipal building recently.

Monique Purcell of the state Department of Agriculture and Tim Brill of the State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC) told the group of state and local officials that there are five major areas of concern: farmland preservation, innovative conservation planning, economic development, agricultural industry sustainability, and natural resources conservation.

Comments on the smart growth plan will be taken until Sept. 2. The plan will be incorporated with the state Development and Redevelopment Plan, Purcell and Brill said.

According to state statistics, there are 9,101 farms in New Jersey, totaling 832,600 acres. Two-thirds of the state’s farms are 50 acres or less.

Brill said that 13 percent of farms in the state are in some sort of preservation program, which is the highest percentage in the country as a total percentage of the state agricultural base.

Still, the state is losing some 10,000 acres of agricultural land a year to development, he said.

The Smart Growth plan will accelerate the purchase of important agricultural land, and coordinate farmland preservation at all levels of government, he said.

Currently, 18 of the state’s 21 counties have established Agricultural Development Areas, five counties have comprehensive farmland preservation programs, and 32 municipalities (including Upper Freehold) have incorporated farmland preservation into their master plans.

Brill said the SADC encourages counties to incorporate agriculture into their economic development plans, and wants to encourage more agricultural representation in local business organizations.

Getting the next generation to farm is also of primary importance, and the SADC has programs to aid the young farmer.

"New farmers don’t have to own the land," he said. "Many people are looking for tenant farmers."

Many local farmers and officials attended the meeting.

Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-30), a farmer and the mayor of Plumsted, said it is critical that the special appraisal of state farmland, due to expire next year, be extended.

He explained that when the Garden State Preservation Trust was created in 1998, applicants for farmland preservation would receive the higher of two appraisals for their property. Farmers could choose to be paid on appraisals as they stood in 1998 or today.

With many municipalities downzoning, there has been significant increase in minimum lot size and a decrease in the equity of the farmer’s land values, he said.

According to Dancer, legislators have proposed a solution. Assembly Bill A-3575 would, if passed, extend the special appraisal for another five years.

Dancer also spoke of promoting tax abatements and exemptions for farmers.

He said he would like to see agricultural enterprise zones established, with a reduced sales tax similar to programs instituted in urban enterprise zones.

Dancer also said he would like to attract more businesses related to agriculture to designated Agricultural Development Areas.

Brill lauded Upper Freehold’s Country Code policy statement, which expresses a philosophy of a commitment to rural life by the township, and is given to each new homeowner.

However, Upper Freehold Municipal Clerk Barbara Bascom said that many residents "throw the Country Code in our face.

"They say not to encourage development. [But], you can’t tell someone they can’t sell to a developer. We do everything we can to maintain farmland preservation, but they think to maintain the rural character is large lot [zoning]. It’s important to keep the farmer farming to keep it rural. They’re reading, but misinterpreting the Country Code."

Upper Freehold Committeeman David Horsnall said, "A question that constantly comes up is the viability of agriculture as an industry in our community."

He said that it is important that local ordinances supporting right-to-farm law stay in place.

Horsnall suggested that people who moved their farmland-assessed properties to farmland preservation have their land taken off the tax rolls for a period of time.

"It’s one more step to encourage people to go that way [preservation]," Horsnall said. "Give these guys a break and more money to put back in their farms. People who go into the program can be the best salespeople for those who want to get into it. If they get seller’s remorse, they won’t be good salespeople.

"I recognize the important contribution of agriculture to our community and would like to see these kinds of program develop," he said.

Dancer said legislation has been introduced which would exempt the capital gains tax on the sale of farmland property when it has been put into preservation.

Bob Freiberger, a former Upper Freehold mayor, said, "The history of the preservation program in our town has been outstanding. The vast majority of the governing body that has sat on the Township Committee has put their property into farmland preservation. But it’s a double-edged sword."

He said developers were bidding higher on properties adjacent to preserved farmland, and could get a premium price for those lots.

"They’re telling the prospective homeowner, ‘There’s your view.’ We should ask developers to contribute an open space fee," he said. "It will balance the scale a little bit."

Upper Freehold Committeeman John Mele said, "A lot of people who have moved into town look at a farm and call it open space. I try to explain to people that there is a big difference between agriculture and open space.

"There are tractors going down the street, noise, dust — it is part of that busi-ness. Many people who move to rural areas don’t expect that," Mele said. "People may move next to a farmer who grows corn. A few years later, it may not be corn. People need to realize that agriculture is a changing environment and a different type of business than they are used to.

"I don’t know how you get this across to the average person; once we lose it, it is pretty much gone," he said.

Alison Mitchell of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation noted that another piece of Smart Growth is "that more in­tense, industrial use tests people’s toler­ance for support of agriculture in New Jer­sey.

"We’ll need to have flexibility, but with parameters around it," she said. "It’s hard to have intensive uses in places where there are a lot of people who aren’t farm­ers.’"

Farmer and Upper Freehold Planning Board Chairman Richard Stern said, "Smart Growth does not mean downzoning — that only spreads sprawl. Upper Freehold is facing development pressures because other towns are went to large lots."

Stern said he believes that other towns should roll back their large-lot zoning be­cause "[developers] are coming in on us. It’s a vicious circle, and it’s got to stop."

He added that building a house on the middle of 5 or 10 acres was a waste of farmland.

One young township farmer expressed optimism, despite concerns by other farm­ers that they may be the last generation of their family to farm in the local area.