HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - At the April 6 county commissioners meeting, Alexandria Township presented an update on activities in the municipality made possible through another of the 2020 economic development grants Hunterdon County officials approved, in order to spur business investments and commercial activities within the county.

As of mid-March, Hunterdon County had issued 17 economic development grants to 14 of the 26 municipalities in the county, totaling approximately $264,000 since the program began in 2018.

Deputy Mayor Christian Pfefferle, of Alexandria Township, spoke about initiatives on Alexandria’s use of licenses for holding events for both farmers and landowners in the township, as both farmers and people who own substantial land in town may hold events though their property is not actively farmed on. Alexandria officials noted that along with furthering local agribusiness goals, the commercial public safety, general welfare and health guidance have to be established and regulated, with particular respect to avoiding land use and disturbance, or nuisances, for residents whose lands adjoin the farms and venues hosting events.

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“This is to promote commercial economic activity for the landowners, with special event licenses for agritourism events that don’t conform to some of the state’s on-farm direct marketing, facilities, activities and event goals,” Pfefferle said. “We saw that there’s an opportunity to recognize the resident landowners and farmers who want to supplement their income with having some commercial agritourism events on their land.”

Hunterdon County Director of Economic Development Marc Saluk noted that Alexandria is home to some of the region’s most well-known agritourism and agribusiness destinations, including Beneduce Vineyards, Mount Salem Vineyards and Ironbound Farm (hard ciders), and he said the township will hopefully be home to more such destination agribusiness in the future.

Pfefferle added that the definition of agritourism, as defined by the local ordinance and licensing process will remain broad to cover a variety of activities, “that would help people earn additional income while driving tourism through Hunterdon County.”

Saluk explained the genesis of this initiative.

“Alexandria Township approached the county in 2019 about working with their planner, the business community and residents alike to create more clarity and consistency in the governance of on-farm special events,” he said. “Because of the work Hunterdon County does in attempting to bring companies to Hunterdon, including vineyards, breweries and more companies that are interested in putting on such events and the work of running and executing the Hunterdon 579 Trail, the idea of being able to more clearly communicate the governance of these events made sense in the county’s perspective. This was seen as valuable to our economic development effort and to be approved, grant recipients must be enacting a local effort that is consistent with the goals and objectives of the county’s economic development initiatives.”

He added that if the regulations for event management objectives are implemented to the satisfaction of all parties involved, both the municipality and the host venue/company, “what Alexandria plans to execute could be adopted or modified for use in other townships,” he said.

Board of County Commissioners Director Susan Soloway asked Pfefferle how the process went in getting both farmers and landowners who would hold events “on board” with the licensing.

Pfefferle said the planning board held deliberations on this and made its recommendations to the Alexandria Township Committee, then the committee “put its own spin on certain pieces.”

Soloway said Alexandria officials should keep the county Economic Development team apprised of the progress going forward as this could offer potential for implementation in other Hunterdon municipalities that already have or would have event venues attracting a variety of audiences.

In another update to the commissioners, the ninth Hunterdon County municipality to review its local business and commercial zoning ordinances and regulations, in an effort to ease potential burdens and limitations on property owners and developers, is Milford Borough.

In 2018, the Hunterdon County government established a grant-funding program for its municipalities to complete similar zoning review work. At its May 5, 2020, meeting the county board approved a $9,000 Hunterdon County Economic Development Grant for Milford Borough for zoning changes to expand the business district.

Soloway said Milford Borough is working with Hunterdon County’s support in making municipal changes at an opportune time. The borough received the grant award from Hunterdon County last July, and, also in 2020, Milford became one of the featured destinations on the new county Economic Development initiative,

“Milford has really been experiencing an economic renaissance,” Soloway said. “Interest in the community and in Hunterdon County’s Delaware River towns in general has skyrocketed lately with new shops and businesses opening on a regular basis. You can see the progress by observing the lack of vacancies and by the foot traffic on the streets. It’s very exciting to see.”

In March, Saluk updated the Board of County Commissioners on Milford’s adoption of new zoning that allows for the expansion of the borough’s primary business district.

“Milford has chosen to use the funding from this grant program to enact changes with the goal of encouraging investment in the community,” he said. “Milford has done that recently through this grant in two ways, expanding the business district and in making zoning and ordinance changes designed to facilitate business growth. They are the ninth Hunterdon municipality to utilize this grant program in this manner or a manner similar to it.”

County commissioner Matthew Holt spoke about the primary goal of making Hunterdon County “as attractive for investment as possible.”

“Towns making policies that encourage this are central to achieving that goal, and if the grant program can help get them there, we will partner with them at any time,” Holt said.

Ten months ago, when the grant to Milford was approved, Holt noted the interest to help a smaller Hunterdon County municipality that was struggling with the pandemic impacts as well as the future recreational potential with connections to trails and the D & R Canal State Park. Aside from historic, charming main streets and agribusiness the county is known for, the burgeoning appeal of ecotourism and passive recreation in rural parts of Central Jersey is another draw.

Milford Mayor Henri Schepens said he expects the funding from the county grant to have a strong local impact. He said borough officials specifically reviewed the current business zone regulations to identify changes that would help facilitate business growth by eliminating cumbersome or antiquated regulations that could hinder and stifle economic development opportunities.

As a result, the mapping of the business district, per regulations, has doubled in this Delaware River town.

“The changes reflect the town’s desire to create a thriving family-friendly business district that services the needs of both residents and tourists alike,” he said. “There’s currently a lot of economic progress in Milford Borough, and the municipal government intends to act as a catalyst to growing that momentum, not as a hindrance.”

Hunterdon County’s investment in Milford Borough was highlighted last year with the announced County park site near the former Curtis Paper Mill, EPA-regulated site (Curtis Specialty Papers, Inc) and the board’s approval of the $434,000 Open Space purchase of four lots comprising almost a half-a-mile-long property at the waterfront.

Hunterdon is working to create its first riverfront county park and connect the region’s economic and recreational opportunities for residents, visitors and businesses along the Delaware, especially with a bicycle path to downtown Frenchtown’s business district noted with this project.

“This riverfront park and bigger picture economic development plan demonstrates that economic development and the environment can be effectively welded together,” Holt said.

Saluk said over the next few months there will be more Hunterdon communities providing their summaries of economic development grant-funded planning to the Board of County Commissioners.

“There are an additional four applicants for 2021 economic development grant funding so far (as of March) and that is all proving to be good news,” he said.