On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 338 N.J. Super. 373 (2001).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized). Township of Franklin v. David den Hollander et als. (A-12-01)
The matter before the Court implicates the relationship between commercial farming activities as defined by the Right to Farm Act (the Act) and the right of municipalities to enforce local zoning and land use ordinances enacted pursuant to the Municipal land Use Law (MLUL).
The Township of Franklin filed a complaint in Superior Court against David den Hollander, Garden State Growers, and Quaker Valley Farms (collectively, "commercial farmers"), the owners of an ornamental plant production operation, alleging that the commercial farmers' operation violated several local land-use ordinances. The commercial farmers moved to transfer the proceedings from the trial court to the Hunterdon County Agricultural Development Board on the ground that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The commercial farmers argued that the Act preempted the MLUL and accompanying local zoning and land use regulations.
The trial judge denied the application, disagreeing with the commercial farmers' interpretation of the meaning and significance of the Act as amended and the administrative regulations. The trial judge concluded that the Act did not preempt the court's jurisdiction to consider pure zoning and site plan issues. On leave to appeal granted, the Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the Act does preempt the MLUL and that primary jurisdiction to regulate agricultural management practices rests with the County Agricultural Board (CAB) or the State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC). The Appellate Division further held that in fulfilling their responsibility to regulate agricultural management practices under the Act, both the CAB and the SADC must consider the impact of such practices on municipalities and, in so doing, consider the limitations imposed by local land use and zoning ordinances adopted pursuant to the MLUL.
The Supreme Court granted certification.
HELD: Judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed for the reasons expressed in Judge Carchman's opinion. The Right to Farm Act preempts municipal land use authority over a commercial farming operation.
1. Although the CAB and the SADC have primary jurisdiction over disputes between municipalities and commercial farms, the boards do not have carte blanche to impose their views. Because the authority of the agricultural boards is not unfettered when settling disputes that directly affect public health and safety, the boards must consider the impact of agricultural management practices on public health and safety and make their determinations in accordance with these standards. (Pp. 3-6)
2. As a general rule, the threshold question will be whether an agricultural management practice is at issue. If so, the CAB or SADC must then consider relevant municipal standards in making its ultimate determination. In disputes where a local ordinance has a peripheral effect on farming but implicates a policy that does not directly conflict with farming practices, greater deference should be afforded the local zoning regulations and ordinances. (Pp. 6-7)
3. Even where an activity is considered an accepted agricultural practice, the resolution of an issue in favor of farming interests does not vest the agricultural board with wide-ranging authority to ascribe to itself prerogatives beyond those set forth in the Act. The boards must act in a way that is consistent with their mandate, giving appropriate consideration not only to the agricultural practice at issue, but also to local ordinances and regulations, including land use regulations, that may affect the agricultural practice. A factsensitive inquiry is required. (Pp. 7-9)
4. Although there is a potential for conflict between farming interests and public health and safety concerns, the Court reposes trust and discretion in the agricultural boards to decide carefully future disputes on a case-by-case basis and to balance the competing interests. (p. 9)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES STEIN, COLEMAN, LONG, VERNIERO, and LaVECCHIA join in ...