Officials wrangle over who will write farmland retention plan

West Amwell’s Agriculture Advisory Committee wants the job, but the Township Committee is considering appointing a different group to author the plan.

By: Linda Seida
   WEST AMWELL — The state Office of Smart Growth wants township officials to outline how West Amwell plans to achieve its goal of retaining agriculture in the township.
   The state wants to make sure the township’s plan is consistent with the State Plan.
   Mayor Ron Shapella was among the township officials who recently met with representatives from the Office of Smart Growth to discuss the township’s goal, but the state also is waiting for a written agricultural retention plan, although no deadline was given. The question is, who will write it.
   The township’s Agricultural Advisory Committee wants the job. The five-member committee sent a letter to township officials saying as much.
   But the Township Committee has not agreed to the request. Instead, officials are considering appointing a different, "broad-based" committee that would be comprised of more than just the members of the Agricultural Advisory Committee, according to Mayor Shapella.
   More than just farmland preservation, the plan also will concern open space preservation and land use, Mayor Shapella said. The committee that will write the plan needs to include more than just the members of the Agricultural Advisory Committee, although the "Agricultural Advisory Committee will be consulted," Mayor Shapella said.
   Agricultural Advisory Committee Secretary Mike Rassweiler said, "It is clear to me that the West Amwell Agricultural Retention Plan should reflect the efforts of local farmers and land managers to define existing and future agricultural activities. The Agricultural Advisory Committee is, by design, made up of farmers and land managers. To attempt to represent a plan to the state for review, without cooperation of the Agricultural Advisory Committee, would be shortsighted and contrary to the intentions of the county and state boards of agriculture."
   Among the requirements that should be listed in the retention plan, according to the Office of Smart Growth, should be details of how the township’s ordinances support and promote agriculture as a business.
   Committeeman Gary Bleacher, who is the liaison to the advisory committee, said it "should be a broad-based effort that involves several township boards, the Ag Advisory Committee being one of the key components."
   Mr. Bleacher also said, "I see this as an opportunity for all to work in concert in order to craft a plan that will do much to keep our agricultural community viable, healthy and active."
   In the meantime, it’s possible all are not "working in concert."
   When the Agricultural Advisory Committee submitted its letter to officials stating its desire to be responsible for writing the retention plan, the committee also included an apparently critical 23-point "report card" of the township’s response to the needs of the agricultural community.
   However, Mayor Shapella said the Township Committee is not releasing the report card yet because it is only a draft document. He also said the Township Committee received the report card "at the 11th hour," and officials have not had enough time to review it.
   "It’s really not right to be blindsided like this," Mr. Shapella said. He added that the report card includes a number of inaccuracies.
   Mr. Rassweiler initially responded to a request for a copy of the report card by saying it is a public record, and he referred the request back to the township’s clerk. However, on the advice of the township’s attorney that it was a draft document, the clerk did not release the report.
   To a second request for the report card, Mr. Rassweiler said, "The ‘report’ is an example of inner municipality communication, and I am sure it will be made public when it has been fully vetted."