Schilling works circuit of presentations throughout north, south New Jersey
NEW BRUNSWICK — New Jersey’s Right to Farm laws offer the state’s farm community considerable protections in the event of neighbor disputes and other issues, but it doesn’t grant farmers “carte blanche or the ability to do whatever you want to do,” said Dr. Brian Schilling, director of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service to a group interested in starting and building farm businesses.
Schilling’s talk on the state’s Right to Farm laws was presented Jan. 14 remotely to locations in north and south Jersey as part of Annie’s Project, a six-week series of classes offered at Rutgers University’s School of Biological and Environmental Sciences.
“There has to be this balancing of the needs and interests of the agriculture industry and the needs and interests of the public and municipalities,” he said.
Schilling has been a member of the State Agriculture Development Committee for about 13 years. The agency is in but not of the state department of agriculture, he explained.
“Right to farm and farmland preservation legislation were passed concurrently, in 1983 and were linked,” Schilling explained at the outset.
“The legislature would not pass one without the other,” he said. In the 1970s a report was published called “The Blueprint Commission on the Future of Agriculture in New Jersey,” and that research recognized “we needed to approach agricultural land retention with a two-headed spear: one has to do with farmland preservation and losing land to development, and the other part of it has to look at the problem we create for ourselves with regulations, nuisance complaints, what happens when incompatible uses come together.
“If you’re farming next to a farmer, they know you do things like farm late at night or early in the morning, but what about new neighbors that are residential?” he asked.
Schilling said he wanted every class participant to have a basic understanding of what right-to-farm is.
“Right to farm is very powerful because in New Jersey, we’re a home ruled state, that means local governments are given substantial powers to regulate land use,” he said.
Thus, to have a state entity come in and tell your municipal officials they’re going to pre-empt your local ordinances is a very powerful protection that can be extended to farmers, he added.
“The first part of Right to Farm is to protect a farmer from excessive local regulation and the other part of it is to protect a farmer engaged in normal agricultural practices from a neighbor who might come in and see these practices as a nuisance,” Schilling said.
He cited Ronnie Lee’s successful operation, Lee’s Turkey Farm, on Hickory Corner Road in East Windsor as an example. Lee’s parents and grandparents sold off chunks of their original farm as development pressures around East Windsor, near Princeton, became too great. What remains is a farm surrounded by housing on all sides.
“In this context, you have neighbors around you that could raise a legal challenge against you or file a nuisance complaint, so that’s why Right to farm is so important,” he said.
“If we find ourselves in a conflict as a farm with the town or with a neighbor, there’s a formal complaint process that involves going to your county’s agriculture development board,” he said.
With 21 counties in state, with exception of Essex, Hudson and Union counties, he said, New Jersey has County Agriculture Development Boards in all of the other counties.
“The law is very specific: if you’re going to register a complaint with a farm, you, as a neighbor or as a municipality, have to file that complaint with the CADB, not with a court,” he said.
Farmers contemplating developing that CSA program or agritourism venture would do well to go first to their CADB he said, “to ask them for a determination or a site-specific plan that says, ‘Yes, we find you are engaged in normal agricultural management practices, and that you will be protected under Right to farm if a concern is expressed by the municipality or a neighbor.’
“If you find yourself in a conflict with a neighbor or a municipality, both parties have already lost,” he argued, but with the help of the SADC in Trenton, “they offer a free service, an ag mediation program, so if we’re at odds over something we can enter this voluntary, confidential and free mediation process. The idea here is, often times when there’s conflict, we fight over the things we disagree about, but we generally have a fair amount of commonality between us,” he argued.
The mediation boards are staffed by trained mediators, he said, and the objective “is to find this nice healthy middle spot where you give a little and I give a little and we both walk away happy and we don’t have to go through a legal process with one another.”
“Let’s say I’m your neighbor, and I have a nuisance complaint because you’re making dust and have the audacity to farm at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. I object, I have an attorney, I’m ready to sue you. Right? It’s very clear [in the law,] the CADB has jurisdiction so that complaint has to be filed there.”
Schilling stressed that for any farmer feeling overwhelmed by nuisance complaints from a neighbor should simply take the matter to their county ag development board.
“Bring your questions to your CADB or to the SADC, don’t get overwhelmed by legal stuff,” he said.
“What are some of the activities that are recognized in state statutes as being protected? Here they are: you have the right to raise products or livestock, process your agricultural output, manage your soil health, put up deer or other animal fencing to control wildlife damaging his or her crop. You can also operate a farm market, but every case is so specific, you really need to speak to your CADB.”
As farmers, “you also have the right to engage in activities that draw people in, to help you market your products, like a corn maze or a hay ride, something that helps you market your product, you can receive protections for this as well.”
The onus is on the farmer to demonstrate he or she is conforming to accepted agricultural management practices, which is why it’s always reasonable to consult with the county CADB or the state’s SADC first with any questions or concerns.
The case law is unambiguous, Schilling said.
“You have the right to farm, but there’s a balancing test; we also have to consider other public interests. The language in case law is that Right to Farm does not allow you cart blanche or the ability to do whatever you want to do.”
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