Vernon farm regulations a problem

06 Feb 2020 | 02:51

    When I tell people that I’m making cheese on Meadowburn farm, not many people are familiar with the location. If I say “the old Bobolink“, I have a larger audience, Bobolink being a commercial dairy and bake house that operated on this location for 7 years.

    In 2018, I passed my inspection with the state health department allowing me to milk cows and produce aged cheeses here and this is my third season doing just that. The process was straightforward and pleasant. My state inspectors made it clear that they are here to help me. I felt understood, respected, and appreciated.

    My license allows me to produce cheese and to sell it wholesale, meaning to restaurants and other retailers. The process of obtaining permits which would allow me to sell retail (directly to my customers) onsite here at Meadowburn Farm, permits which would be granted by county and township agencies, has not been easy or to this date successful. My most recent obstacle being the Vernon Township zoning officer who questions whether or not a farm is an appropriate place for a farm store.

    Allow me to outline her explanation when pressed for clarity. When a piece of property is assessed as farmland, the house and generally 1 acre surrounding it are taxed at a regular rate. The remaining land, if qualifying as farmland, is assessed at a reduced rate. On Meadowburn farm, this “exclusionary parcel” or “homestead” is 1.9 acres and includes all of the farm’s infrastructure. Every barn and outbuilding, every source of electricity and running water is on that 1.9 acre piece. The owners of Meadowburn Farm deliberately made the homestead 1.9 acres so that the homestead would encompass all of the infrastructure having been counseled that is easier to obtain permits for a wider array of activities on the homestead in comparison to the farmland, in this case, preserved farmland. How to convince the zoning officer?

    The zoning officer insists that to have farm sales on that 1.9 acre piece, I would have to go before the land use board to request a change of use. A change of use on the 1.9 acre piece which the survey has labeled as “non reversible” and which is also labeled “store” (remember Bobolink, they had onsite sales on the 1.9 acre piece). So, what change of use?

    According to the zoning officer, if the change of use is approved I will then have to pay for a variance to the tune of $1,800. Seeing as this process seems timely and costly besides moot and unnecessary because the tax rate in no way affects the zoning (all of the land is clearly zoned for agriculture, including agricultural sales, on the Vernon zoning map) I inquired about having a simple outdoor farm stand on the farmland surrounding the homestead. She informed me that she would consider that an “outdoor activity” and I would be limited to 15 days of sales and I would have to pay a permit fee of $50 per day. Really?

    Next I asked about what would be involved in having a food truck as a means of selling my farm goods. Her answer is that only veterans can own and operate food trucks in the entire state of New Jersey. If you google “Vernon Nj food truck” the first thing you find is a Vernon Township government page with information about the food truck festival that the Vernon Township Police Alliance league sponsored for Vernon Day. The Veterans Affairs department as well as the Sussex County Clerk have confirmed that there is no such exclusionary ordinance in the state.

    New Jersey’s right to farm act lists marketing as a protected activity, specifically “the operation of a farm market” as well as “agriculture-related educational and farm-based recreational activities provided that the activities are related to marketing the agricultural or horticultural output of the commercial farm”. The act goes on to state “Municipal officials who believe a farm is violating an ordinance must file a complaint with the CADB (County Agricultural Development Board) rather than issuing the farmer a zoning violation or summons.” So why not just open up for business and let the zoning officer and the CADB hash it out?

    The county health department will not conduct an inspection of the farm store or issue a pass placard until the zoning officer approves the store. While having a farm store here is well within my right as a protected activity, opening up without that pass placard from the health department would be a legitimate violation.

    I have not yet mentioned that Vernon Township has its very own right to farm act which protects “The right and ability to market a particular farm's output on site, including the construction of buildings and parking areas for farm markets and U-pick marketing and sales.”

    As well as an ordinance aiming to “advance agricultural purposes and efforts without unnecessary or excessive zoning enforcement;” in an attempt to “promote farming and agricultural uses in Vernon Township in recognition of the Township's rural and agricultural heritage.”

    How, with all of these local and statewide protections in place, can I be so stonewalled by one individual and ... what next? I have been in contact with every pertinent agency, they are sympathetic and supportive but still I have no income coming in and no projected date for resolution.

    I offer my regrets to my customers and I keep my fingers crossed that they’ll all soon be buying my cheese and not paying my legal fees.

    Jesse Clark