The sour economy has led some to believe that our unpreserved farmland and open spaces are less threatened by development today than was the case a few years ago.
Unfortunately, these areas are becoming more vulnerable than ever, as thousands of acres of prime agricultural soils and upland forest in our area are being optioned and approved for solar and wind development. In fact, Cumberland and Salem counties are seeing more productive farmland and habitat targeted for solar development than it saw from residential development during the housing boom only a few years ago. Lately, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a town in either county Agricultural Development Area that hasn’t seen multiple applications for converting hundreds of acres of cropland or forest into industrial solar installations.
It may not seem like such a serious issue just looking at one application, but communities and their elected officials need to consider the cumulative impact of several thousand acres of our rural countryside and working landscapes being taken out of agricultural production and forestry and converted to industrial solar and wind production.
The pace in which this is happening is staggering, and its implications for the future sustainability of agriculture, or large unfragmented forests, should concern everyone.
The State Agricultural Development Board says we need at least 550,000 acres of farmland in New Jersey in order to have enough acreage to keep the industry economically viable for future generations.
We’ve so far only managed to preserve 190,000 acres of that. We’re all for wind and solar power, but the state needs to incentivize using brownfields and other underutilized areas closer to existing infrastructure where there’s ample room, and economic need, for adaptive reuse of vacant and blighted land.
According to a recent study by Rutgers and Rowan Universities, since 1986, the state’s development footprint has expanded by more than 25 percent, consuming an additional 500 square miles – an area larger than Cumberland, Monmouth and Morris counties.
For the first time ever, there’s now more rooftops and pavement than forests in New Jersey. That’s where solar and wind generation need to be focused – on the built environment, and not scattered across the region’s agricultural underbelly, which represents the county’s main industry.
To do otherwise is to encourage more inefficient and ugly sprawl, which undermines all the good planning and the millions the public has invested in preserving farms in order to assure food security for future generations. You just can’t call renewable energy sustainable development if comes at the expense of resources such as productive farmland.
Upper Pittsgrove Township was sued by Atlantic Green Power after its Land Use Board denied its request for a use variance to convert 422 acres of prime farmland into a massive solar installation.
On May 14, Superior Court Judge Georgia M. Curio ruled in favor of the township’s denial. She did so because the town’s Master Plan clearly articulated the maintenance of agriculture and open space preservation as principle intents and purposes of the town.
The take-home message here is that in order to better safeguard local environs and farm belts from detrimental encroachment by industrial wind and solar, towns need to update their master plans to specifically address and guide these uses with review standards, which define where and how these installations should be determined. These standards can be guided to a large extent by locally adopted environmental resource inventories and open space and farmland preservation plans, which together can provide the necessary legal basis to support sound local decision-making.
Unfortunately proactive local planning isn’t enough right now, as state lawmakers continue to advance evermore legislation, which essentially limits local authority to protect open space and farmland by transferring the powers of community self-determination to powerful special interests.
Case in point is the proposed bill, A-3992, which revises standards for wind generation facilities on farmland to permit utility-scale installations on preserved farmland. The bill also would encourage wind energy to become the primary use on farms.
The State Agricultural Development Committee opposes this bill, and state Agricultural Secretary Douglas Fisher has vocally come out against it saying it would “seriously undermine the Farmland Preservation Program’s efforts if it were to become law.”
Help keep energy sprawl off preserved farmland and contact your legislators and urge them to not support A-3992 or its Senate companion bill, S-2887.
• Assemblywoman CelesteM.Riley (D-3), 14 East Commerce St., 3rd Floor,Bridgeton, NJ 08302 (856) 455-1011.
• Email correspondence for state legislators:
Go to www.njleg.state.nj.us. Click on Find Your Legislator, and then click on Electronic Correspondence. Check the box of the representative you wish to contact, and then fill out the information and write your message.
Matt Blake is manager of the American Littoral Society’s Delaware Bay Program.
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