N.J. program has been preserving farmland for 30 years

The Urban farm in West Deptford was the site of an event marking the 30th anniversary of the Agriculture Retention and Development Act. Gloucester County recently acquired the farm's development rights. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
The Urban farm in West Deptford was the site of an event marking the 30th anniversary of the Agriculture Retention and Development Act. Gloucester County recently acquired the farm's development rights. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 21, 2013

To get a sense of what farmland preservation looks like in New Jersey, stroll Hartford Road in Moorestown.

Just north of the vast Lockheed Martin missile defense complex sits 58 acres of dairy barns, grain silos, farmhouses, pasture, and soybean fields.

And in the field across the way, another crop is sprouting: townhouses.

There, bulldozers are clearing land and steamrollers are paving roads for a 122-unit subdivision, the Mews at Laurel Creek, with prices starting at $469,000.

Development pressure is intense in Moorestown and all across the nation's most densely populated, urbanized state.

But no townhouse or strip mall will likely ever rise on the former Winner Farm across from the Mews.

Targeted a decade ago by real estate developer Toll Bros. Inc. as an office park, it is among the 206,000 acres of farmland the Garden State has permanently protected from development since enacting the Agriculture Retention and Development Act in 1983.

Since then, New Jersey voters have approved eight state bond referendums totalling $1 billion to buy development rights from farmers wanting to keep their land in agriculture. Counties, municipalities, and private nonprofits have spent an additional $600 million.

"We are the leaders in the country. People look to us," state Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher said at an open-air news conference last week in West Deptford.

Since 1983, New Jersey has protected about 25 percent of all its farmland - more than any other state. It also ranks second among states in the number of farms preserved, 2,200, and fourth in total acreage.

Joined by farmers, conservationists, state and county workers, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Fisher was on hand to celebrate the act's 30th anniversary and drum up support for new funding.

"We are looking for 550,000 acres when it's done," Fisher said, referring to the 350,000 acres of farmland the state still seeks to protect.

To pay for that, advocates of farmland and open-space preservation are pushing for a referendum on the November 2014 ballot.

If the question passes favorably, it would authorize the state to dedicate $200 million annually from the state sales tax for the next 30 years to buy farmland easements, open space, and historic properties. About 60 percent goes for farmland.

Legislation authorizing the referendum passed in the Senate this year but has not come for a vote in the Assembly.

"It's the Assembly's turn to act," said Fisher, who was standing Monday in a sunlit field of what he called "one of the great farms in Gloucester County," a 106-acre spread that county officials acquired last year.

"We had our eye on this property for at least 10 years," Sweeney, a former Gloucester County freeholder, said at the news conference. "See how it rolls down to the Mantua Creek? It's West Deptford at its best."

Later, Ken Atkinson, director of the county Office for Land Preservation, recalled how he and township officials pleaded for years with the two aging bachelor brothers who owned the farm to sell their development rights.

But Mike and George "Dutch" Urban were suspicious of government and steadfastly refused. It was not until Mike Urban died that his brother relented.

"His wish was to keep it a farm," Atkinson said.

After receiving two independent appraisals, Urban agreed to sell the county his development rights for $1 million plus $10,000. He signed the transfer documents on Halloween, and died two weeks later at 89.

Next week, brothers Fred and "Hoss" Grasso of Harrison Township will pay $700,000 to the Urban brothers' heirs to acquire the farm.

Purchase price for development rights is based on the difference between what a real estate developer would pay for land and its value for agriculture.

"It's a beautiful farm. It'll grow anything: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, asparagus," said Fred Grasso, 58. "I first came by here 20 years ago and always said I wished it was mine."

"We could only dream of buying this if it wasn't for farmland preservation," said Hoss Grasso. The family owns 100 acres nearby and farms 300 acres on leased land.

Pleased, too, was Brenda Caltabiano, the Urban brothers' niece and executor of the farm's sale to the Grassos.

"There are no more farmers in my family," said Caltabiano, a Paulsboro schoolteacher. "I can kill a plant in two days. But I feel good knowing I can drive by and still see the farm here."

Counties take the lead in identifying farmland for retention and in negotiating with owners. An owner may sell development rights to the state, county, a municipality, or certain nonprofit organizations, but the deed restrictions remain in force for any future owners.

The program is voluntary. Owners retain title to the land, and may sell it or pass it along to their heirs, but the deed restrictions remain in perpetuity. If not actively farmed, the land must be mowed annually and protected from erosion.

"It's a beautiful thing," Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash said last week. "Farmland preservation not only keeps development down, it keeps agriculture intact."

Since the late 1990s, Camden County and its municipalities have seen the acquisition of $14.7 million in development easements on 13 farms in three towns, totaling 972 acres. The state paid for 58 percent.

Nash said the county has its eye on five additional farmland "gems" it wants to protect as part of a dedicated greenway of open space sweeping from Camden to Winslow.

"We don't need a drugstore on every corner," he said.

Gloucester County and its municipalities have seen $92 million worth of rights acquired on 153 farms in 14 towns, totaling 12,608 acres. The state's share was 65 percent.

Burlington County, meanwhile, has been a leader in the state at farmland preservation.

In 1985, it acquired easement rights on five farms in Chesterfield, making it the first county to move after passage of the Agriculture Retention Act.

Since then, the county and its municipalities have acquired $149 million worth of development easements on 202 farms in 20 towns, for a total of 25,232 acres - the third-largest. The state's share of the cost was 61 percent.

Burlington County is committed to acquiring development rights to about 1,000 acres a year, farmland preservation coordinator Brian Wilson said last week, and expects to protect 1,400 acres this year.

"The county maintains a list of properties that meet all our minimum eligibility requirements," he said, "and each year the freeholder board authorizes me to send an outreach letter to all those landowners, telling them of our interest. If they respond, I sit down and explain how it works."

There are sound financial arguments for landowners to sell easement rights, said Wilson, "but I find that most times their reasons are emotional."

"They might have a place that's been in agriculture for generations and they don't want to sell it. Or they might have one member of the next generation who wants to farm and another who doesn't." Revenue from development rights lets parents disperse both money and land to heirs, said Wilson, and keep peace in the family.

"It's a middle way," he said. "It works out well."

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that the proposed $200 million in preservation finds would come from the state sales tax, not the income tax.


BY THE NUMBERS

206,000

Number of acres preserved in New Jersey since 1983

$1 billion

Amount approved by voters to preserve that land

$600 million

Amount spent by counties, municipalities, and nonprofits

$200 million Annual state income tax allotment for farmland preservation in a proposed 2014 referendum

350,000

Number of acres that would be preserved over 30 years through the proposal


doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841

@doreillyinq

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