This is a list of questions and answers in regards to the Farmland Preservation Program. It should be used as a guide and general discussion. Specific questions or interpretations should be directed to the Mercer County Agricultural Development Board at (609) 989-6545.
  • Q1. Where does the money come from to fund the program?

    Funding comes from several sources. The State generally provides 60% of the cost to acquire development rights. The County provides the other 40% of the cost of acquisition. The County's share comes out of the Open Space, Recreation, Farmland, and Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Municipal, non-profit and private funding participation is also encouraged. The State’s share comes from the Garden State Preservation Trust Fund. The State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) is responsible for administering the Farmland Preservation component of that Fund and in turn, created in 2007 two annual grant funds for Counties in the Planning Incentive Grant program: A County Base Grant; and, a County Competitive Grant – to be utilized when a County’s Base Grant funds are depleted.
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  • Q2. What is the definition of a development easement?

    A development easement is a recorded land-use agreement that conveys a portion of the rights associated with ownership to a governmental unit or a charitable organization. In this program the rights removed are the owners right to develop the land for any non-agricultural purpose.
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  • Q3. Who holds the easement?

    The County holds the easement, but the landowner continues to own the land. In case of death, the land is handled as it would be in an estate situation with the agricultural deed restrictions remaining unchanged.
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  • Q4. What is the application procedure?

    l) First, at any time of the calendar year, an applicant submits an application and any other necessary information to the Mercer County Agricultural Development Board (CADB). The Board uses their criteria and SADC criteria, to review for eligibility and to create a “rank score” for the application. In each annual funding round, the CADB  can submit to the SADC as many applications as can be funded with county/local funds; however, because of State cost-share funding limitations, not all applications may be advanced to the SADC in a given year or given funding round. Upon CADB preliminary approval the application is submitted to the SADC for review. Examples of some of the CADB/SADC review and ranking criteria are:

    LOCATION - The application must be a farm within a County Project Area and targeted for preservation. If the farm is within a Project Area but not targeted, the landowner can request that the Board target the farm for the next calendar year.

    SIZE - The CADB has minimum size criteria of 25 acres (unless adjacent to an existing or proposed preserved farm)

    SOILS - Using a list generated by the Soil Conservation Service known as the New Jersey Important Farmlands Inventory, points are given based on identifying the number of acres of prime, statewide, local or unique soils found on the subject property. Points are also awarded for the percent of the subject property that is tillable. This is an extremely important category because overall, the program is land based, with the goal towards purchasing farms with the most productive and adaptive soils.

    BOUNDARIES AND BUFFERS - This section looks at the various land uses surrounding the property - attempting to measure the degree to which the buffer protects or benefits the agricultural operation. A housing development is considered the least desired buffer, while the ideal would be another farmland deed restricted property.

    LOCAL COMMITMENT - Since the goal is not only to preserve farmland, but also to maintain an environment conductive to a viable agriculture industry, it is important to see how the local community feels toward agriculture. A number of items are used to gauge support for the program. Points are also given if the municipality is willing to financially assist with the purchase of easements. A community that has invested money into specific easements may be less likely to approve a subdivision immediately adjacent to one. These municipal decisions contribute to the continued vibrancy of agriculture. The formula, stated in the policy, uses the state equalized valuation which endeavors to address the concern that not every community has the same tax base or ability to contribute based in population or a variety of other factors.

    DENSITY - The density score is determined by looking at the distance between the applicant's farm and other already preserved farms or current applications.

     2) SADC staff reviews the submitted applications based on adopted SADC criteria. All applications are reviewed for eligibility and given a “rank score” based in part on the criteria identified above.

     3) Subject to SADC preliminary approval, the County hires two independent appraisers to appraise the subject property. The County absorbs the cost of the appraisals. Once these appraisals are completed they are submitted to the SADC review appraisers, who after a careful review, recommends an easement Certified Market Value to the SADC. The Certified Market Value can be the highest per acre appraisal, the lowest or between the two values.

     4) Upon SADC certification of an easement value, the CADB informs the landowner of the certified value and makes an offer for the purchase. If the County will be seeking State cost-share competitive grant funds,  the rules affecting the prioritization of applications by the formula index (“relative best buy”, see Q. 11) and the landowner's application’s relative ranking are also explained to the landowner.)

     5) “If the landowner accepts the county's offer or offers a “relative best buy”, the county shall enter into an agreement with the landowner contingent upon the county's final review pursuant to N.J.A.C. 2:76-17.13 and the Committee's final review pursuant to N.J.A.C. 2:76-17.14 and shall provide a copy of the agreement to the Committee, and in the event municipal funds are provided, to the municipality.”

     “If a landowner rejects an offer for an amount equal to or greater than the certified market value, the Committee shall not accept for processing any application for the sale of a development easement or for sale of land in fee simple pursuant to the planning incentive grant program or any other farmland preservation program authorized pursuant to N.J.S.A. 4:1C-11 et seq., or 13:1C-1 et seq. for two years from the date that the county originally submitted an application for the sale of a development easement. This provision applies only to an application from the same landowner for the same farm property.”

     6) Easements are purchased to the extent of available State funds.
     7) The CADB reviews the applications and determines which applications receive final approval, based on the ranking of the application, relative best buy if applicable (see Question 11), and available funding. The necessary approvals and funding commitments are also secured from the municipality and Freeholders.

     8) The Committee shall approve a cost share grant for any farm that qualified for final approval and for which there are sufficient funds available in the county's base grant.

    In the event that there are insufficient funds available in a county's base grant to acquire a development easement on the farm(s) being submitted for final approval by any county, the county may request additional funding from the competitive grant fund.
    The Committee shall establish a priority ranking that will prioritize applications for grants from the competitive grant fund based on the number of cumulative points awarded according to criteria from N.J.A.C, 2:76-17.14(e) and subject to a county's maximum funding eligibility and available funding:

    9) Subject to final SADC approval the CADB can contract for the survey, secure title insurance and schedule a closing date.

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  • Q5. How long does it take?

     From the day the applicant submits his/her application to the CADB until the day of closing the process takes approximately 18 months. This includes review time by the CADB, SADC and the time needed to complete the necessary appraisals, surveys and title work. Title work and surveys must be prepared to the SADC and CADB satisfaction prior to closing.
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  • Q6. Who pays for the various costs entailed in the Easement Purchase Program?

    The County generally pays for the appraisals, title search and survey. In some cases a municipality may assist with these costs. The County has the option to deal with these expenses in any manner that it deems appropriate. The applicant is advised to obtain legal and financial counsel at his or her own expense. Once the County and landowner have entered into a contract, if the landowner should withdraw for any reason, the County must be reimbursed for certain expenses (including survey and title).
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  • Q7. What are the tax implications if I participate in this program and what qualifies as a charitable donation?

    These are both good questions, but ones that should be asked of either legal or tax professionals. Please seek out their assistance before and/or as you proceed with your application.
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  • Q8. How is my application evaluated for preliminary approval?

    First, the CADB evaluates the application based on the criteria adopted by the CADB (which are similar to the SADC’s criteria). Once the CADB grants preliminary approval. The application is submitted to the SADC. The SADC then reviews and ranks all applications on a monthly basis. (Also see Q.4, paragraphs 1, 2, and 3).
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  • Q9. Who decides whether my application is accepted?

    The CADB has the ability to reject applications if they do not meet their defined criteria. The CADB has determined project areas in the County in which to pursue the purchase of farmland easements. The CADB is further limited by the availability of funds. Only applications with CADB preliminary approval will be forwarded to SADC staff and acted upon by the SADC.
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  • Q10. In general, what kind of farm will score well?

    Generally speaking, it is a farm with primarily tillable prime and statewide soils that is part of a project area with existing preserved farms, located in a community where there is active awareness and participation by the municipality in the program, i.e., right to farm ordinances, and financial commitment.
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  • Q11. How does price play a role in the program? If I am willing to accept to a lower value will I be given priority?

    The Statute establishing the Farmland Preservation Program requires that the SADC give priority consideration to the relative best buy or formula index. Since public dollars are being used for the purchase of easements, landowners offering the best buy would receive priority when competitive grant funds are utilized. An applicant can increase his/her score by taking a discount off of the certified value of the easement.
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  • Q12. What is an RDSO?

    RDSO stands for Residual Dwelling Site Opportunity. Whereas previously, once the easement was purchased, no further residential development was possible, an RDSO provides the opportunity to construct a residential unit within a two-acre site. As long as its construction and use is for an agricultural purpose. The price paid for the easement is reduced by 4 times the per acre value for each RDSO.
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  • Q13. What is the eligibility requirement for an RDSO?

    A landowner is eligible for one RDSO for every 100 Acres owned. However, approval of the requested RDSO's by the CADB and SADC is not automatic. The net housing ratio, including existing housing, cannot exceed 1 house to 100 acres.
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  • Q14. Who approves the RDSO's?

    The CADB and the SADC. The CADB has taken a position that they do not favor RDSO's.
    Since an RDSO must be used for an agricultural purpose, an owner who is not actively farming the farm might not be allowed to live on the farm. Instead of an RDSO, the Mercer County Agricultural Development Board prefers to use an exception area to provide for the opportunity to reside on the farm. Where an RDSO exists, the permission to exercise it, and its location, must be granted by the CADB and SADC.
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  • Q15. What is an exception?

    Exceptions are portions of the applicants land holdings that are not covered by the deed restrictions and thus provide flexibility to the property owner. Landowners are not paid for the acres contained in an exception. A formal subdivision is not usually needed to except a portion of the property; but there must be a specific location accompanying the request and septic suitability documented if a structure requiring sanitary sewage disposal is proposed.  Exceptions will be approved by the CADB at the time the farmland preservation application is filed.

    When a farmland preservation application is submitted, the CADB will require any request for new non-agricultural labor housing to be within an exception. The CADB understands that houses increase the value of a farm and will restrict new housing opportunities in order to help maintain re-sale affordability of the preserved farmland for existing and new farmers.
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  • Q15A. How do exceptions work?

    An exception can be severable or non-severable. A severable exception will need to meet the minimum lot size for the local municipality's zoning and the landowner should pursue subdivision approvals concurrently with the farmland application. A severable exception can be sold separately from the preserved farm. Points are subtracted from the application to reflect the fact that lands are being removed from the farm.  Such areas can be subdivided in advance of a preservation application to avoid point deductions.

    A non-severable exception is preferred by the CADB and is usually utilized to provide a site for a future farmhouse (if for example, no house presently exists on the farm). A non-severable exception will be tied permanently to the farm (cannot be subdivided from the farm and sold separately). The non-severable exception cannot  be further subdivided and is commonly restricted to a single-family residence and ancillary uses. Often, a non-severable exception is located on the road frontage to minimize intrusions into the farm. The Mercer CADB will restrict the size of a house that can be built within an exception to a maximum of 4000 square feet of livable space (defined as areas commonly lived in). In addition, ancillary uses (any garages, sheds, and other enclosed structures) are restricted to a sum total of no more than 1,500 square feet. Any existing farmhouse will also be restricted to no more than 4000 square feet unless it already is larger than that.

    Many landowners request an exception around an existing farmhouse. This would ensure that the existing house would not be subject to all the farmland preservation deed restrictions. This is especially useful for a home-based business because it provides the greatest flexibility to the landowner. Be advised that some restrictions are placed on the exception area but some of these can be written to address any specific needs unique to the farm. In addition, the farmhouse would continue to be subject to local zoning. Note that multiple exceptions can result in points being subtracted from the application.

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  • Q16. Can a landowner subdivide his/her preserved farm?

    Yes, however there must be joint prior approval in writing by the CADB and SADC. Any “division of premises” will require that the resulting parcels are agriculturally viable and that the division serves an agricultural purpose. If RDSO's exist, they must be allocated between the resulting parcels. Without an existing house, RDSO or exception, there is no provision for housing on the resulting parcels.
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  • Q17. How is easement value determined?

    Two independent appraisers, contracted by the County, look at the market value of the property unrestricted and then the market value if the property was restricted. The difference between the two is the easement value. These appraisal reports are submitted to the SADC review appraiser who examines the appraisals for errors, omissions, appropriate procedure and fully justified reasoning. Upon completion of the review, the review appraiser recommends a value to the SADC for certification.
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  • Q18. Will wetlands be considered?

    A formal survey of the wetlands is not required. The County provides to the appraiser an estimate of how many acres of the subject property are within a wetlands area, if any, and approximately how many acres are within a buffer area. This information would be accompanied by a sketch of these areas on the best available map of the subject property. The NJ State Freshwater Wetlands Maps are the source of the information provided.
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  • Q19. Once the farm has been deed restricted, can it be sold?

    Yes, but all future owners must still conform to the deed restrictions on the property.
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  • Q20. How much can I sell it for?

    Whatever price you wish and the market will support.
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  • Q21. Do I need permission to sell it?

    No, as long as the property is not being subdivided in the process.
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  • Q22. Can I build a house for my children on the deed-restricted ground?

    Only if an exception included in the deed of easement provides for the construction of a house. The only permitted residential unit would be within an exception. Any exception must be requested at the time of application. See also Questions 15 and 15A.
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  • Q23. What are some of the prohibited practices?

    No sand, gravel, loam or rock or other minerals shall be deposited on or removed from the premises except those materials required for the agricultural operation. No dumping or placing of trash or other waste material shall be permitted unless expressly recommended by the Committee. Basically no activity shall be permitted on the property that would be detrimental to drainage, flood control, water conservation, erosion control or soils conservation or any other activity that might negatively affect the continued agricultural use of the land.
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  • Q24. Can agricultural labor housing units be built?

    Yes, but only with approval by the CADB and the SADC.
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  • Q25. Is there a monitoring program?

    Yes, approximately once a year, SADC or County staff visits the deed restricted properties to make sure that the deed restrictions are being maintained. The landowner must be given 24 hours notice, with the inspections to take place during daylight hours and on regular business days. In the event of any violation of the terms and conditions of the easement the SADC may institute in the name of the State of New Jersey, any proceeding to enforce the terms and to require the restoration of the premises to its prior condition. Landowners will be asked to complete an annual update indicating any changes at the time of the visit.
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  • Q26. Must the deed-restricted grounds be farmed?

    No, the land must be available for farming. If the ground is not farmed, the landowner may lose the benefit of farmland assessment.
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  • Q27. Are there other requirements to preserving the property?

    Yes, at the time of closing, the landowner must sign a restrictive covenant with the County insuring that at least once a year, all fields and open spaces not in pasture or with crops will be mowed to maintain that land for agriculture.  In addition, because the Deed of Easement requires that a Conservation Plan be obtained from the local Soil Conservation District, the landowner will, at closing, sign a release of the Conservation Plan to the CADB and SADC to insure compliance with the Deed.
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