Montgomery Township’s Quest to Preserve Its Rural Character
By Richard D. Smith | Posted November 3, 2023
Montgomery Township officials’ claim that the township will retain its rural character seems highly justified. It didn’t look like it would be this way. The decade between 1986 and 1995 saw the largest loss of agricultural acreage in Montgomery’s history, nearly 32 percent of its farmland was lost to developers. Entire communities emerged, seemingly overnight.
Rock Brook runs through Skillman Park in Montgomery. The park is managed by Somerset County.
Residential is now the number one use of land throughout the township. Many might guess that commercial development — in the form of strip malls or office complexes — would place second. Actually, it’s not even in the top five. The second greatest land usage is agricultural followed by other types of open space.
Montgomery Land Use
1. Residential: 25.45 percent.
2. Agricultural: 17.79 percent. (This includes farming, livestock raising, and horse training and boarding.)
3. Deciduous forest: 15.77 percent.
4. Deciduous wooded wetlands: 8.27 percent.
5. Mixed forest: 5.68 percent.
This totals 73 percent of the land use.
Open Space Preservation
Now, some 2,282 acres of land is preserved on 34 farms in Montgomery Township. And there’s an additional 764 acres of farmland targeted for conservation purchase or permanent easement as agricultural land. But farms are only part of the story. There’s also parkland and other public open space.
Montgomery Township has dedicated itself to this effort with the formation of its Open Space Committee (in 1989) and its Agricultural Advisory Committee (2003). Although separate bodies, there’s a synergy to their work. There had been informal advisory groups in the 1960s and 1970s. But the residential building boom of the 1980s brought a realization that formal entities were needed within township government to make the best evaluations and to take the best action to maintain Montgomery’s rural character while allowing beneficial growth.
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Lauren Wasilauski, Montgomery Township Open Space and Stewardship Director, reports that most of the funding for open space and farmland preservation doesn’t fall wholly on local taxpayers — thanks to considerable support from state and county governments. The NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program partners with Montgomery and other municipalities in many open space acquisitions.
Wasilauski says it is, “providing half the funding for many of our open space and parkland acquisitions, allowing us to make our open space tax dollars go much further.” The program also, “reimburses us for 50 percent of the ‘soft costs,’ such as the land surveys or any environmental assessments.” The state offers some smaller grant opportunities as well.
Local Non-Profits Help Out
Montgomery has also partnered with Somerset County and local non-profits such as the Montgomery Friends of Open Space, the D&R Greenway, and New Jersey Conservation Foundation. The creation of Van Horne Park, between Route 206 and Research Park in Montgomery and Princeton Avenue in Rocky Hill, brought the township, borough, and other entities together in a win-win joint effort. “When we bring all those partners to the table, it allows us to structure our dollars to go further,” Wasilauski says. “It’s a lot of coordination,” she adds, “making sure everyone has the right documents and is kept up to date. But in the end, everybody gets to take a little credit and spend less money.”
Montgomery has been competitive in acquiring and preserving open space, including farmland. Typically, two appraisals are done. (The state’s Green Acres program requires two appraisals if the estimated purchases price will be more than $250,000.) Of course, if land owners have the means to donate open space property to the township, Wasilauski certainly encourages them to speak with their financial advisors about the tax benefits of making such a gift. “Otherwise, we offer a fair market value price for properties,” she says. “I think that’s why our program has been so successful.”
The Open Space Committee
Clem Fiori of Blawenburg has served as chairman of the Open Space Committee since its 1989 inception. He points out that a thoughtful decision process is vital. Often a property is attractive for its scenic vistas, especially as viewed from public roadways. But, he adds, “It’s often about linking sections of open land together, especially along stream corridors.” Endangered animal species often find others of their kind through such corridors. “It often means reforesting, and then trying to control and manage invasive species,” he says. “It’s an entire ongoing process.”
Open Space at Sunset Park.
Although working farmland is private property and not public parkland, Montgomery Township’s Farmland Advisory Committee plays an important role in overall open space issues. It gives input on farmland acquisitions and working farm preservations while also providing feedback on proposed ordinances, regulations, and programs. It reviews development applications that are coming before the planning board and might impact neighboring agricultural land.
In early October, Tara Kenyon (a licensed professional planner, principal in Kenyon Associates and consultant to both Montgomery and Franklin townships in land preservation and sustainability), recently presented the revised Farmland Preservation Plan (FPP) to both the Montgomery Township Agricultural Advisory Committee and the Open Space Committee. (Periodic review and updating of farmland preservation master plans is required by the state in order for municipalities to be eligible for state funding.)
Some 2,822 acres are farmland are preserved (either acquired or given permanent agricultural easements), with 1,146 of that since the last FPP in 2010. And 764 current farmland acres are prioritized for future preservation. (Figures rounded up to the nearest whole number.) To be preserved for agriculture, farms must meet minimum eligibility criteria of having at least 50 percent of what are classified as “important soils” and 50 percent tillable land.
More good news: the most recent studies have determined that a full 94 percent of the soils within Montgomery Township are conducive to agriculture. Cropland Harvested comprises the predominant category of agricultural production in Montgomery Township, with hay being the leading crop. However, livestock of various kinds continue to be an important contributor to Montgomery agricultural production. And riding in from the horizon are horses and ponies: The equine industry, not only in horse breeding but in boarding and rehabilitation centers, has continued a strong growth trend that started in 2015.
Agriculture is a permitted use within all residential zones; research, engineering, and office zones; and light manufacturing zones. To fund the preservation of targeted farmland, the township will continue to apply for municipal Planning Incentive Grant (PIG) funds and will work through state and county programs to leverage this funding. The municipality has bonded in the past for larger projects, which is still an option, if needed. Partnerships with non-profit entities (Montgomery Friends of Open Space, D&R Greenway, New Jersey Conservation Foundation) continue to provide valuable opportunities for the leveraging of funding and expertise. Preserving all targeted farm acres is a difficult task, and will depend on the willingness of sellers, changes in ownership, the real estate market and economy, and trends in development.
New Jersey and most other states have adopted Right-to-Farm Acts, which help ensure that the noises, odors, and roadside farmstand activities that have been traditionally accepted parts of farming won’t be banned under contemporary zoning ordinances. Right-to-Farm Acts also provide a structured mediation process outside lawsuits to resolve issues between farmers and their residential neighbors.
The Equine Industry
The equine industry has steadily increased over the last ten years in Somerset County. Greater hay supplies will be needed, making welcome the dominance of hay among Montgomery’s crops. (A niche market for organic hay is also growing.) Amendments to New Jersey’s Right-to-Farm Act adopted in August 2021 allow construction of on-site housing for agricultural labor for horse farms alone. The township, its consultants and committees recognize that preserving farmland involves promoting and strengthening local agriculture itself.
Among the outlooks and recommendations in the latest FPP: Niche agricultural products and sales strategies (including direct sales via “agritourim” visits to farms) will be increasingly implemented as part of farming business plans, as will product diversification; funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act will be sought to remediate aging water infrastructure, promote cleaner energy and transportation, and provide broadband internet service for farms and isolated communities. And emergency preparedness and resiliency strategies for agricultural operations will become a “standard of practice,” especially after recent flooding, extreme heat, and storm events.
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Reclaiming Flood Properties
Jack Roberts, president of the Montgomery Friends of Open Space (MFOS), notes that in the wake of Hurricane Ida in 2021 the township has focused on the Rock Brook Corridor as an area especially needing preservation and protection. Some homes and properties along and near Rock Brook were even abandoned after the catastrophic flooding. The township is working with the federal government to arrange restitution for these properties, with MFOS particularly active in one case. The founders of MFOS, says Roberts, needed in 2003 to be proactive “in applying for funding for conservation easements, fee simple, and other partnering purchases to preserve open space.”
However, the township subsequently began more actively Association pursuing open space preservation, taking advantage of its ability to borrow against open space tax revenue in a comprehensive conservation and purchase plan which it shares with the New Jersey Green Acres Program and other grant funding opportunities. This evolution in priorities, he observes,” has allowed MFOS to be more of an advocate and partner in the process.” “Having Lauren Wasilauski as the town lynchpin is very helpful,” Roberts says. “Coordinating with the Open Space Committee, the Environmental Commission, the Sourland Conservancy, and others has also made this process successful.”
The Process Goes On
The township is currently negotiating with several property owners for general open space acquisitions. Interestingly, many of these properties are located in the Sourland Mountain region, totaling about 40 acres. The nonprofit Sourlands Conservancy is actively advising and encouraging the process. Among MFOS activities – certainly the highest profile – is the MFOS Farmers Market, which provides a local venue for the sale and promotion of agricultural products grown and created in and around Montgomery Township. The market is currently held Saturday mornings 9 am to 12 noon in the parking lot of the Village Shoppes, 1378 Route 206 just north of the Rt. 518 intersection. “The market remains the most ‘practitioning’ element of what we do in that it offers an outlet for farmers to sell goods to the public,” says Roberts. “It is pretty much the face of MFOS.”
The Farmers’ Market
Lorette Pruden is the MFOS’s one employee as the market’s longtime and enthusiastic manager. The market made its start at the Princeton North Shopping Center, with great encouragement and guidance from the non-profit N.J. Council or Farmers and Communities (which networks local farmers with market sales opportunities in regional towns and even cities). But it was visually hidden from potential customers in passing traffic by the center’s hedges and general location. The Village Shoppes location raised the market’s profile – and that of the Montgomery Friends of Open Space, which maintains a greeting and information tent here each market Saturday. “It provides local farmers with an outlet for their produce,” says Pruden, adding with a laugh, “but just not their hay or soybeans!”
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Also active are farmers of what might be called inner spaces: food specialty producers who often use locally sourced ingredients to produce and package various jams, sauces and baked goods in local commercial kitchens. But just as the world couldn’t break a path to the Farmers Market in its rather hidden former location, so area residents can’t be expected visit the township’s beautiful preserved open spaces if there are no physical paths to them. So, MFOS members spend a good deal of time assisting the township in trail creation, pathway construction and signage installation.
Open Space Committee chairman Clem Fiori also reinforces the importance of access for “landlocked” parcels away from public roads. Somerset County shares this vision and is active in coordinating pathway creation with Montgomery, he adds. Says Jack Roberts, “The township recognizes that open space as a vacant entity does not serve as positive an element if citizens cannot be a part of visiting it.”