On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Docket No. L-513-01.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman, Grall and Riva.
Plaintiffs, a state organization representing the interests of farmers (New Jersey Farm Bureau), an unincorporated association of farmers residing in the Township of East Amwell (United Farmers and Landowners of East Amwell), and several individual farmers who own land in East Amwell, appeal a judgment upholding an East Amwell ordinance (Ordinance 99-06) that increased the minimum lot size in the municipality's agricultural district from three to ten acres. The ordinance has a lot averaging provision that permits residential lots as small as 1.5 acres and an "open land" subdivision option, which allows a 50% density bonus for cluster development on 1.5 acre residential lots in exchange for the landowner's promise to preserve the remainder as agricultural land. This ordinance was one of several initiatives designed to preserve the agricultural character of the district, which comprises approximately two- thirds of the municipality.
East Amwell is a rural municipality of twenty-eight square miles (18,000 acres) located in southeastern Hunterdon County. Its population in 1990 was 4332. It has one village, Ringoes, consisting of about 250 homes and businesses, and several hamlets, including Linvale, Reaville, and Wertsville, which are very small crossroads communities. All of these communities have been entered on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. Two major roads, Route 31 and Route 202, pass through the northwest corner of East Amwell near the village of Ringoes. Most of the municipality's roads are narrow, winding cartways, with a number of single lane bridges.
More than 90% of East Amwell is in two zones: the Sourland Mountain district, located in the southern part of the municipality, which consists of approximately 5523 acres; and the Amwell Valley Agricultural (AVA) district, located in the northern part of the municipality, which consists of approximately 11,000 acres. The trial judge, Judge Hoens, who toured the area with counsel, described the AVA district as "a place of breathtaking beauty, comprised overwhelmingly of large parcel farms and fields dotted with barns and silos stretching virtually as far as the eye can see."
Over 80% of the AVA district consists of prime farmland or soils of state-wide importance, which are classified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as soils that are most productive for sustainable agriculture. Seventy percent of all land in East Amwell (12,500 acres) is assessed as farmland, including 68% of the land in the AVA district.
In June 1992, the New Jersey State Planning Commission released the New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan (State Plan), which was intended to serve as a guide for policy decisions at all levels of government to achieve the goals of the State Planning Act, N.J.S.A. 52:18A-196 to -207. A major goal of the 1992 State Plan was to prevent further encroachment into rural areas as a result of suburban sprawl. Since 1950, hundreds of thousands of acres of rural agricultural lands have been converted into sprawling subdivisions. The State Plan concluded that this is a "pattern of development that destroys the character of the cultural landscape, is inefficient in terms of public facilities and services and devoid of the sense of place that has long defined the character of life in New Jersey."
In establishing state-wide planning objectives, the State Plan divided New Jersey into five planning areas: the Metropolitan Planning Area (PA1); the Suburban Planning Area (PA2); the Fringe Planning Area (PA3); the Rural Planning Area (PA4); and the Environmentally Sensitive Planning Area (PA5).
The Rural Planning Area also included a subcategory, the Rural- Environmentally Sensitive Planning Area (PA4B). The AVA district is located in PA4 and PA4B planning areas. The State Plan recommends that growth in PA4 and PA4B areas be confined to "centers," which are compact forms of development.
In August 1998, the East Amwell Planning Board issued a land use plan amendment for the AVA district and a reexamination report. The overriding goal stated in the land use plan amendment was to preserve farmland. The Planning Board concluded that the three-acre zoning in effect at that time would not meet East Amwell's goal of preserving large tracts of farmland. Citing the 1995 Master Plan Consistency Review prepared by the Office of State Planning, the Planning Board concluded that "the 3 acre zoning currently provided in the Amwell Valley District is a prescription for suburban residential sprawl and over time will signal the end of agricultural land uses in East Amwell." The Board noted that "[r]esidential densities should be low enough to be compatible with farming, and to discourage land speculators, but not so low as to substantially affect land equity." The Board also stated even mandatory clustering would not "preserve large blocks of contiguous acreage for long term agricultural production." The Board stated that "professional literature indicates that a minimum lot size of 20 to 25 acres is appropriate agricultural zoning in a moderate strength farming area." However, the proposal that East Amwell rezone the AVA district for one unit per twenty-five acres met strong opposition from farmers, so the Board ultimately decided that the area should be zoned for one unit per ten acres.
The reexamination report reaffirmed East Amwell's commitment to the State Plan's recommendations to preserve farmland and discourage development in Planning Areas 4 and 4B, except in centers. The report urged adoption of the zoning changes recommended in the land use plan, adding that recent subdivisions were "destructive" of the municipality's rural character and that three-acre zoning would not effectively preserve valuable farmland. Accordingly, the report recommended ten-acre zoning, with lot-size averaging that would permit dwellings on lots as small as 1.5 acres, and an "open lands ratio" provision that ...