RARITAN, TWP, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved development rights acquisitions for the iconic cattle farm at 239 Reaville Road, in Raritan Township, from the estate of Donald and Lillis Bowlby in three separate easements for acreage Feb. 4.

Bob Hornby, Hunterdon County Agricultural Development Board (CADB) administrator, addressed the freeholders about the parcels and said the three divisions occur as natural property boundaries because the farm sits on both sides of Reaville Road, serving as a bucolic gateway into Flemington heading northwest from Old York Road.

The freeholders approved terms of the purchase in an 80/20 cost share for acquisition of development rights, with 80 percent of funding for each parcel from the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) and 20 percent of each from Hunterdon County. Total costs were certified at $13,200 per acre for the larger two of the three Bowlby Farm parcels, 97.9-acre and 55.8-acre tracts.

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The smallest of the three tracts at Bowlby Farm, a 20.8 acre site, received certified fair market value of $11,700 per acre.   

Each parcel’s approval contains development easement exception areas. Each of the parcels will include a “non-severable” exception, limited to one single-family home per parcel.

For the 97.9-acre parcel, the exception is for 3 acres to build a future single-family home. The parcel’s associated cost-sharing breakdown in the agreement is $1.002 million for the SADC and $250,536 for Hunterdon County.

For the 55.8-acre parcel, the exception area is for 6.7 acres for the existing single-family residence and attached apartment, resulting in 49.1 acres of preserved farmland on that parcel. The cost-sharing breakdown is $518,496 for the SADC and $129,624 for Hunterdon County.

For the 20.8-acre parcel, the exception area for a future single-family home site is for 2 acres. The cost-sharing breakdown is $175,968 for the SADC and $43,992 for Hunterdon County.

According to the county planning and land use website, as of 2018, 23 farms in Raritan Township with a total size of 1,394 acres has been preserved, for a total cost of $17.03 million.

Lifelong county resident and Freeholder John Lanza said the Bowlby Farm holds a distinct place in the heart of the agricultural community in Hunterdon County. He said that, along with much of Old York Road and Raritan Township, it represents West Jersey’s bucolic character.

“The Bowlby Farm holds special significance in my heart, growing up, we always traveled through it on the school bus on Reaville Road from the Lanza family homestead to Robert Hunter Elementary School," he said. "It is really a great piece of property and I want to thank the volunteers of the CADB, Mr. Hornby and county planning department staff for finding creative ways to preserve such a major property while minimizing costs to the county’s open space fund with this 80/20 split."

"Every time we’re able to identify alternative funding sources, it helps preserve some of the county open space trust fund for other preservation projects," he added. "In this case, having the SADC provide 80 percent of the funding to the county’s 20 percent, it not only helps the level of the county’s open space trust, but it also relieves that burden on Raritan Township and the Raritan Township local open space fund as well."

Lanza added that farmland preservation efforts will continue as a high priority for the Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The Bowlby Farm is one integral piece to the agricultural landscape the freeholders, CADB and county officials have worked to preserve.

Hornby said past Bowlby Farm, almost the whole length of Kuhl Road running east-west from Bartley Sheaf Road in Raritan Township to routes 202 and 31, are approximately 1,000 acres of farmland down to the Neshanic River watershed and Heron Glen golf course.

The farmland preservation setup maintains the property to be owned by the landowner while Hunterdon County buys the development rights to parcels, “putting a deeded restriction so going forward, they can’t be subdivided and it can’t be developed for any residential purposes not outlined in the agreement,” Hornby said.

The CADB/SADC agreement, approved by the freeholders as three resolutions for each parcel, also asserts that the Bowlby Farm properties have zero existing or proposed agricultural labor housing units, zero pre-existing non-agricultural uses and zero trail or access easements.

“Two parcels are vacant, there are no buildings on those lots," he said after the meeting. "The vacant 97.9 acres is on the opposite side of Reaville Road from the farm buildings, barns, silo and homestead. On that one, they took a 3-acre lot on Reaville so that if they ever wanted to build a house (residential uses) on it, they’re restricted to that ‘box.’ The ability to build farm structures anywhere on that 97.9-acre  property is unrestricted, if they wanted to build new sheds or a cattle barn."

“It all connects as a green belt, there is a significant amount of preserved farmland around Bowlby Farm," he added. "It’s a huge land mass and you don’t create a situation with one farm completely surrounded by development. On Old York and Kuhl roads there are several, there’s a green belt that runs basically the whole length of Kuhl Road. Going back 100 years the Kuhls were actively farming the area. Having agricultural lands clustered like this lowers the stress between agricultural land use and residential land uses."

Lanza said, “the Bowlby Farm is one of the last remaining cattle operations within Hunterdon County. Its preservation is clearly an important achievement, and keeping the 175 acres as farmland in the midst of Raritan Township also achieves protection of the scenic view."

"Protecting tributaries of the Neshanic River are very much accomplishments in line with the county’s farmland preservation strategy,” he added.

The Neshanic River watershed runs into the Raritan River, creating important irrigation and potable water sources for much of Central New Jersey.

Hornby also commented on the quality of life factor in preserving farmland in Raritan Township.

“People growing up on some smaller lot properties there still get the exposure to farmland and big open spaces," he said. "Preservation is good for the whole county. Hunterdon County is known for its agricultural vistas."

According to Hornby, within the county open space trust fund, specific uses of $0.03 per $100 value is authorized for specific uses. Hunterdon County allocates 30 percent of open space trust funding toward 30 percent for county farmland preservation and 30 percent for open space purchases to, for example, expand the parks system, not for parks’ operating expenses.

Hornby noted that for preserved farmland tracts there is no public access, whereas a Green Acres program purchase can turn it into a hiking trail or other uses.

Appraisal of the parcels included only the land (acreage) and not the buildings, barns, silo and other edifices located on the Bowlby properties. Hornby noted that appraisal doesn’t include improvements made on the land.

“Farmland appraisal is not akin to a typical real estate appraisal," he said. "The only thing we are looking at is the land as under this easement the only thing the county buys the development rights to is the land. The county is not paying for the farm buildings in any way. There is no preservation clause specific to the farm buildings."

Hornby said in a separate inteview that the Bowlby family had submitted its application for the multiple parcels on Reaville Road in spring 2019, and the resolutions coming before the freeholders for approval this month were not indicative of a set timeline for county administrative processing. Due to multiple funding mechanisms and approvals involved including the SADC, he said the process can sometimes take up to two years.

Hornby also announced that, in the coming weeks this spring and up until May, the next  funding round and review of applications begins for the Hunterdon County Agricultural Development Board.

“Twice a year, spring and fall, we accept applications for sales of development rights to the Board of Chosen Freeholders," he said. "We can announce this to maintain a rolling basis of the program for submissions as our freeholders have been fantastic in funding the program and it has been pretty popular. If there are interested landowners they should contact our CADB."