STATE — An analysis of open space in New Jersey done by the Sierra Club shows that the state is leading the nation in the loss of farmland. The Sierra Club’s analysis, based on USDA National Resource Inventory data, shows that rural land in New Jersey is being developed rapidly. New Jersey leads the nation in the loss of farmland as a percentage of the overall land area.
The National Resource Inventory is a report released by United States Agriculture Department and Natural Resource Conservation Service. Based on this data, the status of New Jersey’s rural land is bleak, according to the Sierra Club. From 1982-2007, New Jersey has experienced a more than 20 percent reduction in rural land.
“Rural land, in terms of cropland and forestland, is slipping from the grips of nature and into the hands of developers,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Based on the report, which was released earlier this year, 40.7 percent of New Jersey’s land is developed and 59.3 percent is rural land. This is from 2007 data. The percentages of developed and rural land become closer and closer each year. In 1982, New Jersey consisted of 26 percent developed lands and 74 percent rural lands. The goal of the NJDEP should be to keep those percentages from getting to 50-50, according to the Sierra Club.
The data shows that between 1982 and 2007, developed land has increased by six percent in New Jersey. Land previously used for public recreation and wildlife preservation is being developed, leading to sprawl and negative impacts on our environment, according to the Sierra Club.
A 40 percent reduction in crop land has led to a significant decline in the number of farms producing fresh, local food, according to the Sierra Club analysis. New Jersey now has to import more produce from other states, increasing truck transport and air pollution.
“New Jersey will continue to loose its farmland at an alarming rate as long as we make it easier to grow houses on farm fields than crops. In 1950, New Jersey had more than two million acres of farmland and now we are trying to hang onto 600,000 acres,” Tittel said. “The current system is broken and leading to the paving over of our farmlands as fast as possible.”
The Sierra Club believes there are fixes to help protect New Jersey farmland:
- The farmland assessment program needs to change. Under the current program, if you convert a farm to development, you only pay a three-year rollback on property taxes. That rollback should be extended 10 more years and the profits should go to preserve farmland. Under Farmland Assessment Act, a farmer pays 90 percent less tax on his farmland than he would if it was something else. If you convert it to a development, there is only a three-year penalty. We need to increase that penalty.
- We need a stable source of open space funding to preserve open space and protect farmland.
- We need to expand and simplify transfer of development rights so the program can be more effectively used.
- Instead of developing rural land, we must reinvest in our urban centers and keep urbanizing infrastructure, like sewers, out of farmland. Developed buildings and abandoned lots should be refurbished rather than taking valued rural land. A focus on urban redevelopment and growth near public transit will replace the need for completely new development on rural lands.
- We should be zoning farms for agriculture and have agriculture zoning. Currently most farms are also zoned for subdivisions and office parks. Agriculture zoning was upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court. We don’t zone housing for industrial park uses, we should not zone farmland for housing or office parks. Doing so undermines the whole purpose of protecting agriculture.
- New Jersey needs to have growth boundaries similar to Oregon so that farmland is protected. Lands outside growth bound in preservation areas would be zoned for agriculture. Farmers would be able to sell their land for open space, sell development credits, or transfer development credits.
“New Jersey is the garden state but at the rate we’re going, if children in New Jersey want to see a farm or a cow, they’ll have to go to other states. Instead of the Garden State we’ll be sprawl state,” Tittel said.
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