Getting the Facts on Farmland Assessments

Even with a Freedom of Information Act filing, NJ Spotlight struggled to gain access to key data

Despite the size and cost of New Jersey’s farmland-assessment program, there is no straightforward repository of information about all the properties receiving a tax break under it.

Property owners must fill out a form, FA-1, in applying for farmland assessment. Those with a woodlot management plan must also file a WD-1 form. The forms are filed with local tax assessors and submitted to the state Department of Treasury, which compiles an annual report each year.

While those forms include information about the number of acres of land used for certain purposes and the types of crops grown, they do not include any financial information — for instance, how much income the farmer gets from the sale of trees or corn. In preparing its 2008 report on the potential impact of revising the income threshold, Rutgers University researchers used the FA-1 form acreage counts to calculate revenue estimates based on yield and price data reported for the state.

While treasury officials collect the forms and create an annual report, they do not keep the forms, but pass them on to a federal official working within the state Department of Agriculture.

Last year, NJ Spotlight attempted to get copies of forms for roughly 150 properties in several dozen municipalities by filing public records requests under the state’s Open Public Records Act. The Department of Agriculture said it did not have the forms and Treasury, after initially agreeing to provide the documents, eventually also denied the request, saying it had turned these state reports over to a federal agency, which refused to return them.

“Unfortunately, the Division of Taxation has not been successful in regaining possession of the records and it does not appear that we will,” wrote Barbara O’Hare, manager of treasury’s government records access unit, who suggested filing a federal Freedom of Information Act request and OPRA requests with each individual municipality.

Spotlight’s federal FOIA request filed with the USDA was dismissed because, FOIA officer Monica Williams wrote in a letter, the department “does not collect this sort of data rather it is owned by the State of New Jersey.”

Last April, Spotlight filed a complaint over the records denials with the New Jersey Government Records Council. That complaint is still pending.

Spotlight did submit several OPRA requests for forms to local tax assessors with mixed results.

Officials in a number of communities, including Bedminster, Clinton Township, and Colts Neck provided paper or emailed copies of the forms. An October request to Greenwich Township in Cumberland County, however, remains unfilled despite numerous attempts to get the information — although the assessor was to have been pulling and providing the information, she never did.

In addition to those forms received, Spotlight used the state’s property tax database to calculate acreage, assessment, and tax data for land assessed both as 3B, qualified farmland receiving a lower assessment, and 3A, regular farm property, including any house and assessed at the typical rate.