Saving farms

By: Joseph Harvie, Staff Writer    
South Brunswick Post, 05/18/2006

Preservation programs were touted at a May 11 meeting between about 25 township farmers and county and state officials.

Middlesex County and the state have their eyes on South Brunswick.

More specifically, they're looking for farmland and owners willing to preserve it forever through state and county preservation programs. The county runs an Easement Purchase program and the state runs a Direct Easement Purchases and a Fee Simple Purchase program.

"It improves the agricultural economy and improves the overall beauty of the area," said Linda Busch, administrator of the County Agricultural Development Board. "So it's good for everyone."

Ms. Busch, along with Gary Pohorely, senior planner of the State Agricultural Development Committee, met with about 25 township farmers on May 11 to discuss how the preservation programs work.

Through the county Easement Purchase program farm owners sell their farms' development rights and retain ownership of the land, and agree to deed restrictions that allowonly agricultural uses on the property.

The state Direct Easement Purchases is similar to the county program where farmers sell the development rights to their land and have restrictions placed on their deeds. Through the state Fee Simple Purchase program, the State Agricultural Development Committee purchases a farm from an owner, places deed restrictions on the land so that it will be preserved as a farm and then sells the farm at an auction to the highest bidder.

The county and state have several sets of criteria for a farm to meet before it can be considered for the programs, including the size, the quality of the soil and its proximity to other preserved farms.

The programs also take into account whether or not the farms are in danger of being developed, Ms. Busch said.

Ms. Busch said all of the criteria is scored on a points system and is evaluated by the County Agricultural Development Board, made up of county employees and citizens, which determines what parcels are right for the program.

"The farm has to be a minimum of 10 acres," Ms. Busch said. "But we do make some exceptions."

Farms that are between 8.5 and 9.8 acres are also considered for preservation but would have to pass highly on the other criteria, Ms. Busch said.

The state has similar size requirements for parcels, but unlike the county it breaks them down into categories.

Farms that are 59 acres are considered "priority" farms for preservation, ones between 43 and 59 acres are considered "alternative," and those less than 43 acres are considered "other," Mr. Pohorely said.

Mr. Pohorely said there are some small differences between applying through the state and the county. He said that the state makes the owner give a price per acre for the farm.

He said that after the application is filed and accepted by the state Agricultural Development Committee, the state makes the owner sign an agreement that he or she will not sell the farm for six months.

"This way it isn't sold while we are having the farm appraised," Mr. Pohorely said.

He said that the state does two appraisals on the farms, which takes about six months to complete. The county also does two appraisals, Ms. Busch said. But, it does not ask the owner for a six-month, no-sell contract during the appraisal period.

Ms. Busch encouraged township farmers to fill out the application for preservation.

"The money you get for the farm can be used to expand your operation, reduce debt and reduce mortgage payments," Ms. Busch said. "Another good reason is you have access to state and county grants."

She said that the farms in preservation are the only farms in the state that qualify for state water and soil conservation grants.

In addition, Ms. Busch said preserved farms are the only ones allowed to use irrigation systems in times of drought.

Land owner Barrie Barclay, who preserved about 22 acres on Orchardside Drive in April, said the one thing he liked about entering the program was that it was hands off.

"They did all of the work," Mr. Barclay said. "All it costs you is the $40 registration fee."

He said the one thing he did not like about the program was how long the process took.

"It took over three years," Mr. Barclay said. "But the good thing is there was no commitment until you sign that contract."

Ms. Busch said that at no time throughout the preservation process is the farmer locked in until he signs a contract.

According to a list of farms preserved through Middlesex County's Easement Purchase Program, New Jersey, the county and South Brunswick have jointly purchased the development rights to 375.51 acres of farmland in the township for about $6.3 million.

The first farm preserved in the township was Edward and Joyce Barclay's 69.21-acre Dey Road farm. The state, township and Middlesex County purchased the farm in 1993 for $539,869.20, according to the list.

Then in 1995 the three entities preserved the 197.8-acre Dey farm on Dey Road for $1.6 million. In 2004 the groups purchased the development rights to the 10.8-acre Farrington Farms on Davidsons Mill Road for $180,400. Later that year the 74.9-acre Von Thun Farm on Ridge Road was preserved for $3.69 million, according to the list.

Last month the state, county and township preserved 22.8 acres of farmland on Orchardside Drive, near the township's border with Plainsboro from Barrie and Geraldine Barclay for $827,349, according to the list.

Ms. Bush said the county is in negotiations to purchase the development rights to 149 additional acres on Orchardside Drive from the Barclay family, of which Mr. Barclay is trustee.

Mr. Pohorely said the state is trying to preserve land throughout the state, and currently doesn't have any applications from Middlesex County.

"We are looking to preserve farms in Middlesex County," Mr. Pohorely said. "We have 20 farms in Hunterdon County but we want to diversify our preservation efforts throughout the state."

At the meeting, farmers also raised concerns about the Township Council creating the R-6 zone, which would allow one house to be built on 6-acre lots.

Mayor Gambatese said the township created the zone but did not implement it anywhere, yet. He said the township has been eyeing land owned by the N.J. Turnpike Authority in the right-of-way of Route 92 in the southern section of the township. He said down zoning that land would ensure that if Route 92 is officially taken off the books then the land could not be overdeveloped in the southern section of the township.

Route 92 is a proposed 6.7-mile limited access toll highway that would run from the Turnpike at Exit 8A to Route 1 at its intersection with Ridge Road. In November the Turnpike Authority shifted $175 million of the $181.5 million set aside for Route 92 to expand the Turnpike from three lanes to six lanes in both directions from Exit 8A to Exit 5.

Other farmers at the meeting raised concerns about entering the program and then discontinuing farming on the land after several years.

They wondered how the land would be assessed if farming had stopped. They were concerned that if they leave the farm to their children and they do not continue farming then they would have to pay higher taxes on the property because it would no longer be farmable land.

In order to qualify for farmland assessment and farmer has to make $500 from the farm in a year, Ms. Busch said.

Mr. Pohorely said that if farming ceases on a parcel, the farm would not be assessed as regular developable land, because it cannot be developed. He said the taxes would probably be higher than that of farmland but not by much. Ms. Busch said that since the county program's inception in 1985, no one has stopped farming on preserved property.