Eminent Domain Down on the Farm

"No one's home, or farm and ranch land, is safe from government seizure because of this ruling." - American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, on the Kelo decision

When they closed on their 42-acre farm in Sandyston, New Jersey, on June 10, 2005, Rajesh Sinha and Jolene Plitt were looking forward to increasing the ranks of farmers in Sussex County. Red Gate Farm, as it was called years ago, was once a dairy farm owned by the Grosch family, friends of Sinha's parents.

The couple renamed their new farm "Liberty Farm," reflecting on the farm's history, which dates back to the Revolutionary War, and the 1790s house on the property. Fields of hay, bordered by the trout stream known as the Little Flatbrook and its tributaries, a stone's throw from Route 206, make the location ideal for the couple's plan - to raise horses, beef cattle, chickens, even lavender.

On Friday, August 8, less than two months after purchasing the farm, Sinha received a letter from Integra Realty Resources of Morristown, New Jersey, informing him that the Township of Sandyston was interested in acquiring his farm. The letter stated that an appraiser would be inspecting the property. Sinha's reaction was disbelief. "I thought it was a mistake," he said.

Sinha went to the township clerk and asked for copies of the township's minutes. In the July minutes, he read that there were drawings in the preliminary stages for a park including soccer fields, softball fields, little league fields, playgrounds, a picnic area with a pavilion, and a walking path - all on his property. According to the July minutes, there had been a discussion about demolishing the old house and keeping the dairy barn for storage. Sinha viewed a satellite photo of his property with the ball fields sketched in.

The designation of the farm for open space acquisition is arbitrary, and does not conform with the 1993 master plan for the township.

Last Friday, Sinha conferred with his attorney and the New Jersey Farm Bureau seeking their support in opposing the use of eminent domain to acquire this property. The New Jersey Farm Bureau� is a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation�, a national organization of farmers and ranchers with member state and county Farm bureau organizations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

"The New Jersey Farm Bureau opposes the casual use of eminent domain by municipalities and believes it never should be used to take farmland against the wishes of its owner," said Peter Furey, Executive Director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. "Farmland is a prized resource in this state, which should be removed from the consideration of involuntary conversion to non-agricultural uses." The Farm Bureau opposes the use of eminent domain to acquire Liberty Farm.

This firm has written the Sandyston Township Committee informing them of their representation of the property owner and declaring it is their intent to vigorously oppose the use of eminent domain to acquire Liberty Farm.

In the recent case of Mt. Laurel v. Mipro Homes, L.L.C. the court seems to give the municipalities unfettered rights to acquire property for open space even without a specific plan, where the real intent is to prevent development. Download the opinion. Here, Sinha and Plitt do not intend to develop the 42-acre property; they want to restore the 1790s house and continue farming operations. The township has no specific plan and has conducted no studies supporting the need for ball fields or the site selected.

Sandyston has approximately 1,825 residents (25% are under the age of 18) and a small grammar school with fields behind the school. All the infrastructure is there: parking lots, lights, restrooms. The logical choice for expansion of the fields, if they are in fact needed, is property adjacent to the school.

Sandyston also has other choices within its borders: state and federal parks such as Stokes State Forest or the Delaware Water Gap Recreational area, created from lands that were originally condemned for the Tocks Island Dam project. Thus, there is ample land for ball fields, probably at little or no cost to the township.

In The Ag Agenda, American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman explains why farmers have a lot at stake:

Unfortunately, because less than 2 percent of the population has direct ties to farmland, governments seldom recognize farming operations as the best use of land. They will more than likely only see dollar signs that come with recruiting a developer to locate on what is perceived as under-used and under-taxed land at the edge of the city.

Farmers and ranchers are having problems maintaining their fields and pastures for food and fiber production. They are contending with urban sprawl and need protection against government bodies having free reign to take land.

Sinha put together the Save Liberty Farm website in early August to warn his neighbors and other Sandyston residents about the plight of his farm. To date, more than 400 visitors have viewed and left comments of support on his website. A petition signed and circulated by surrounding land owners opposes the township's plan to use eminent domain to acquire Sinha's property. A meeting of the Township of Sandyston is scheduled for Tuesday, September 6 at 7:30 p.m.