September 4, 2008

Highlands Farmers Fear Fallout


Andy Borisuk has been farming in Vernon since 1961 watching the cornstalks grow high when rainfall was plentiful, watching them wither during a drought.

During those 47 years, he says he's learned two things: Trust Nature. Don't trust the government.

"Nature has its own way of working things out," Borisuk said. "The government, if they don't have the money to buy your land, they steal it through regulation."

Borisuk, 78, echoes the sentiments of many Highlands farmers these days, as the Friday deadline looms for Governor Corzine to act on the proposed Highlands Regional Master Plan. The plan aims to balance protection of the state's premier watersheds with sustainable development in the 860,000-acre region. But farmers fear the labyrinth of new environmental restrictions will prevent them from selling their land and choke off future economic growth.

Adding to that worry is a drought of a different kind. Money that the state has used for development buyouts in the Farmland Preservation program will dry up in 2009. And with the state's debt already spiraling toward $36 billion, it appears unlikely the state will take on more through a bond issue to replenish the program.

Hope Gruzlovic, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, said six of the seven counties in the Highlands region including Passaic and Morris will each get about $2 million in Farmland Preservation funding in 2009. The exception is Bergen County, which did not submit a Farmland Preservation plan to the state and therefore will get nothing, she said.

"The greatest fear is that guys who have been farming all their life and are now in their 70s will never be able to retire," said Kurt Alstede, a farmer from Chester and member of the overseeing Highlands Council. "A farmer's equity is in his land."

Borisuk says his retirement dream was interrupted when the Legislature adopted the Highlands Act in August 2004. At the time, he'd already won approval from the Vernon Planning Board to subdivide his 21-acre cornfield into 10 building lots. The area was zoned for light industry, and Borisuk's idea was to cut a road through the cornfield, pave it over, and sell the building lots to small businesses.

"My plan would have created jobs in Vernon, which is just what we need in Sussex County," Borisuk said. "And I estimated that it would have generated about $250,000 a year in tax ratables for the town once all the lots were built. This was something that would have been good for the town."

The plan may have been good for the town, and good for Borisuk, but it was just the type of development the farmer thought the Highlands Act was looking to stop. Covering a cornfield with shops and a parking lot won't do much to recharge the aquifer the underground water-bearing formation and Borisuk concluded that the site plan approval granted him by Vernon would never pass muster with the Highlands Council. So he withdrew the plan and offered the land to the Farmland Preservation program.

Under the Highlands Act, because Borisuk had a pre-approved subdivision, Farmland Preservation bought the development rights to the land based on the subdivision value which added up to about $20,000 an acre, or $420,000 for the entire property. Had Farmland Preservation purchased the development rights to mere farmland, Borisuk estimates he would have gotten about $5,000 per acre.

Borisuk expects to close the deal by the end of the year and will continue farming. He's pleased with the deal, but wonders if other farmers will get the same opportunity.

"There's not much money left in the Farmland Preservation program," Borisuk said. "And I got greater value because I had a pre- approved subdivision. Most other farmers don't have that."

Taxpayers have already spent $287 million to preserve 346 farms covering 29,693 acres in the Highlands since the Farmland Preservation program began in 1983, according to state records. But the regional master plan estimates there are about 162,000 of the region's most-vital acres that still must be preserved some of it farmland and the rest of it open space.

The state estimates it will cost $1.3 billion to compensate the owners for lost equity but where that money is going to come from at this point is anyone's guess.

Robert Corrales, a spokesman for Corzine, said the administration was aware that funding is key to making the Highlands master plan workable.

"Governor Corzine has stressed the need to protect open space throughout New Jersey and certainly wants to make sure we find the necessary funding," Corrales said. "Determining a funding source for the open space is an ongoing process, and we intend to continue working with our partners in the Legislature on a bipartisan basis towards a solution."

Concerns about funding recently prompted Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, to resurrect the idea of assessing a water tax on water utilities throughout the state. The idea of a water tax has been floated by Democrats in the Legislature in recent years, but the bills have never come up for a vote.


Figuring value

Under the Highlands Act, landowners who offer their property for buyouts are compensated at the appraised value of Aug. 10, 2004, the day the law was adopted.


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