Chatham Township Planning Board Seeks More Controls in Farming Ordinance

About 20 residents attended the Chatham Township Planning Board meeting last night to give input on a draft of the Market Garden Ordinance up for discussion. Pictured are Chris Struenig and Dan Miller who represented both sides of the issue.     Credits: Tracy Ness

CHATHAM TWP, NJ – The planning board met last night to discuss the draft of the Market Garden ordinance created to allow residents owning more than three acres to grow produce and flowers for profit. After almost three hours of question and answer, as well as comments from residents, the general consensus was that the idea was sound but the ordinance needed more controls to prevent misuse in the future. 

Chief among their concerns were the use of pesticides, environmental impacts and the potential scale of farming activities that may come into play in the future.  Board member Thomas Browne said, “these people seem sincere about their intent to farm … but we need to ensure that it somehow does not morph into something bigger in the future.” 

Planning Board President Lydia Chambers told the crowd of about 20 people that the board’s role is to, “review the ordinance, listen to the advice of our professionals and to input from residents and provide the governing body with guidance only.”  Chambers said they will look at how the ordinance fits with the master plan and make recommendations on the ordinance.

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The township’s planner Frank Banisch said there was no rush to judgment on this issue and was encouraged that this conversation was happening now.  “We are talking about what is happening in the backyards of one of the best places to live,” he said.  “Preserving farmland and open space is a part of the master plan but there is some duality as we want to retain farmland but not diminish the residential aspects of the community.” 

Banisch explained that farming for profit is currently not a permitted use but there are permitted accessory uses for the keeping of horses, ponies and fowl on properties of more than 5 acres on a not-for-profit basis and for farm structures of no more than 35 feet high.  The Market Garden ordinance would create a conditional use to allow residents with more than “three contiguous acres to plant, grow and harvest produce, fruit trees, flowers for cutting, and bee keeping, the products of which may be offered for sale off-premises.”  Banisch said he thought the conditional use approach would work, “if it is was done properly.” 

Township Mayor Nicole Hagner said that there are 13 farms in the township today that have been grandfathered and are farmland assessed.  “And there are 42 residential properties spread across the township that have greater than three acres,” she said.  Chambers asked if there had been any issues with the current farms in operation.  “There have been no major issues with the farms that are currently under the state’s Right to Farm Act that I am aware of,” she said.  Banisch added that farmland has dropped from 280 acres to 126 acres when last reviewed as part of the master plan revision in 2008 but that farm assessed land was substantially higher. 

The board spent two hours listening to the concerns of residents in Green Village who would be directly affected by the new ordinance as two of its residents – Dan Miller and the Bucuk Family – have petitioned for the right to farm produce and sell at the local farmer’s market.  Chris Struenig lives between the two properties and does not want a farm “shoehorned in” to a residential neighborhood. 

“I do not want any new farms.  Farms are not very clean and it is an industrial use no matter if it is organic or not,” he said.  “I am concerned about the use of chemicals and air quality.  My wife has asthma and, if this goes through, I feel like I am being forced from my home.” 

Marg Capecelatro went through the ordinance providing the board with a list of concerns and questions from her and neighbors.  “You put the zoning [in Green Village] to protect our interests. The limitations in this ordinance will not protect us from the Right To Farm Act and then all bets are off,” she said. 

Dan Miller countered that he would not be using pesticides or heavy duty equipment to farm three acres.  “The issue is not can we grow it, it is can we take it and sell it.  We have never discussed a use that I cannot do on my property today.”  Miller was referring to the fact that anyone in the township can grow a garden whether it is one acre or five acres but the township prohibits the sale of the items grown.

Former Director of the Great Swamp Watershed Association and Green Village resident Julia Somers urged the township to approve the ordinance.  “I grew up on a farm and today we have four horses, 20 chickens, rabbits and dog and recently received approval to expand our barn,” she said. “I totally support organic farming in Green Village. It is an honorable thing to do.”

Members of the planning board agreed to take all of the information presented at the meeting into consideration in making its recommendations to the Township Committee.  They will discuss the recommendations at the board’s next meeting on Dec. 19 and a draft of the revised ordinance will be available to the public before the meeting. 

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