The owner of preserved farmland in Franklin Township violated the law when it excavated and leveled 20 acres in building temporary greenhouses, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 38-page decision, the court found the resulting destruction of “prime’’ soil constituted a violation of deed restrictions on the preserved land even though new buildings for agricultural purposes are a permitted use.
To farmland advocates, the case is significant because it upholds one of the prime purposes of farmland preservation: retaining those lands permanently for a variety of agricultural uses by future generations.
“The preservation of high quality soil and open space for future generations is one of the chief aims of the Farmland Preservation Program,’’ Justice Barry Albin wrote for the court. “Although Quaker Valley had the right to erect hoop houses, it did not have the authority to permanently damage a wide swath of premier quality soil in doing so.’’
It all started with a hailstorm in 2007
The case involved a family farm of 120 acres that became part of the farmland preservation program in 1993. The Matthews family had owned the farm for over a hundred years, harvesting corn, wheat, oats, soybeans and hay on the land.
The dispute arose a decade after Quaker Valley Farms LLC, a wholesale horticultural business, purchased the deed-restricted land in 1997. In September 2007, a hailstorm damaged a crop of chrysanthemums on a 20-acre field, saddling the owner with a million-dollar-plus crop loss.
To avert further losses, Quaker Valley, which produced plants for large retail outlets, decided to build temporary greenhouses, or hoop houses. To do so, however, Quaker Valley decided to excavate and level the sloping field, an activity reported to the State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC) by a concerned neighbor.
A team of experts that was sent to the farm found some parts of the field had as much as 12 feet of soil removed, at some locations exposing the sandstone bedrock. The SADC filed a complaint against Quaker Valley, which landed before a trial court. The judge eventually ruled the grading of the field violated the terms of the deed and the state’s farmland-preservation law.
Quaker Valley appealed, and the Appellate Division initially affirmed the lower court’s decision but then reversed its finding upon reconsideration. In each court venue, the failure of the SADC to adopt regulations to guide farmers on what activities are permissible under the deed restrictions arose as an issue.
Quaker Valley contended the terms of the easement deed are vague, and thus unenforceable, an argument that the state’s high court recognized.
Soil was destroyed for other agricultural uses
“Farmers must know before they act — not afterwards — whether a construction project consistent with agricultural use and production is at odds with soil conservation,’’ the court found.
In other circumstances, the lack of clear guidelines might have barred an enforcement action as was taken in this case, according to the court.
“But the activities here were so extreme that, in the end, we are persuaded on this record that no landowner could have reasonably believed that the leveling of a twenty-acre field and destruction of such prime soil was permissible under the deed of easement.’’
The land alteration, the court found, destroyed the use of the soil for other agricultural uses, “specifically, the growing of row crops — the very agricultural use which was a significant reason the property was originally selected to be preserved.’’
The court strongly suggested the SADC take steps to provide farmers with guidelines on what activities are permitted on preserved agricultural land.
“If the SADC fails to undertake the necessary rulemaking to establish guidance on the extent of soil disturbance that is permissible on preserved farms, then it can expect administrative due process challenges to its enforcement actions,’’ the court said. “It is only the extreme nature of this case that saves the present enforcement action.’’