Ag advisory committee approved
CHESTER — There was no diabolical plot to delay the creation of an Agricultural Advisory Committee to the Highlands Council.
Those were the words of Council Vice Chairman Kurt Alstede in answering the contention of some farmers that the committee was delayed for nefarious reasons.
He noted the formation of the advisory committee was originally discussed by former Gov. James McGreevey and former state Agricultural Secretary Charlie Kuperas when the Highlands Council was formed in 2004.
However, the development of the Highlands Regional Master Plan, which was supposed to take 18 months, actually took much longer.
Adding to that, every change in the state administration further slowed things up.
“Government is a crock pot, not a microwave,” Alstede said.
The Council finally passed a resolution forming the committee at its meeting in late February, intending to make appointments in March, but the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancellation of both the March and April meetings. Alstede said he is hopeful the council will resume its meetings in May and make the appointments.
“We need to populate the committee,” he said noting even after appointments, it can still take up to 60 days for it to get up to speed.
He said he has been working with some younger farmers who he said could be appointed to the agriculture advisory committee, perhaps as a stepping stone to the council itself.
In forming the council, McGreevey promised there would always be a farmer on the council and Alstede has filled that slot from the beginning.
“I have a nice list” of younger farmers, he said, noting he probably shouldn’t serve on the council forever, although “it’s fun to be the old guy on the council,” he said.
He and Tracy Carluccio are the only two original members still on the council.
There are currently two farmers on the council, Alstede and Richard Vohden of Green Township, Sussex County, and Alstede said he is not sure McGreevey’s promise will always been kept.
Alstede explained agricultural uses are a special exclusion from the rules that govern other uses in the Highlands, the result of Kuperas working through the governor’s office.
“Agriculture is unique,” he said.
Farmers blame the Highlands Act for their loss of equity, Alstede said.
He said the act made a provision for compensation through the Transfer of Development Rights Bank. Every farm has a TDR credit. However that was never funded.
“There is no funding mechanism in the act,” he said. “Farmers feel they got screwed.”
Some of those farmers are more or less permanent fixtures at Highlands Council meetings.
Hank Klumpp of Tewksbury Township, Hunterdon County, has a sign on his property claiming the state has taken his property value. Deborah Post of Chester Township, Morris County, and David Shrope of Lebanon Township, Hunterdon County, are also regulars at the meetings.
Post asked to be appointed to the agriculture committee.
Alstede said he is in favor of funding for the TDR bank. He noted the state has permanent funding for farmland preservation.
That money is carved from the corporate business tax. He said TDR money could also come from there or possibly from the long-discusses water use fee.
“Why not pay for the preservation of land and resources?” he asked rhetorically. The people who get the benefit of water protection should pay for it, he said.
The Highlands Council is an arm of the state’s executive branch, Alstede said. As such, it has limited ability to bring about legislative change. He suggested the farmers speak to the state legislature rather than the council.
He does acknowledge the farmers have a real problem, although some of them had a chance to put their land into farmland preservation.
Unfortunately, he noted, for a time Hunterdon County didn’t see the “social justice aspect of preservation the way Morris and Warren did,” and farmers there had fewer preservation options.
Somewhat optimistic that politics may play less of a role than at the inception of the council, Alstede noted transitions from one executive director to another have been smooth since the administration of Gov. Chris Christie when Gene Feyl was replaced by Margaret Nordstrom who retired and was replaced by current director Lisa Plevin.
Alstede believes the agriculture subcommittee can help in many ways beyond assisting individual farmers.
Because the Highlands Act preserved land and natural resources, it opened the way for eco-tourism and agri-tourism can play an important role in that.
His tenure on the Morris County Tourism Bureau taught Alstede some things he feels apply to the Highlands.
“At first, Morris County tourism focused only on Morristown,” he said, noting the “Military Crossroads of the Revolution” emphasis tended to keep the bureau’s eyes on battlefields and places Washington slept.
Finally, he said they discovered Western Morris County, especially Chester as the “gateway to the Highlands,” but have not done a good job of promoting the region with its parks, trails, farms and hunting lands.
The closure of Lake Hopatcong last summer to an algal bloom resonated far beyond the lake and Alstede hopes to see mitigation to prevent that from happening again to ensure the entire Highlands Region can fulfill its tourism potential.
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925