Controlling Development in Delaware Township: The Lessons Learned from Preserving the Grano Property

On Friday July 7th, 2006 the township closed on its most expensive preservation project ever. With a price tag of $4 million, the preservation of 66 acres of the Grano property is the largest single land preservation deal Delaware Township has ever undertaken, and in a departure from normal procedure, the deal was negotiated without input from the Township Open Space Committee.

The Grano Purchase was poorly handled and expensive.
In 2003, when the estate of Stuart Kean announced its intention to sell its three parcels at Buchanan and Sandy Ridge Road – over 150 acres – the Open Space Committee recommended buying the entire property.  The asking price then was $4.5 million for the 120 acres comprising the “Brown Farm” and the estate parcel, and $900,000 for a 33-acre farm field adjacent to Sara Dilts Park. The Township Committee at that time, Mayor  Sue Lockwood, Ron Bibbo, George Hrehowesik, Ken Johnson, , and Rich Madden decided not to buy the entire parcel, but decided to buy the 33-acre parcel for $900,000 – a record high price – leaving on the market the 120 acres that were subsequently bought by the New York financier, Joseph Grano.

At the April 5, 2005, Planning Board meeting, Mr. Grano and landscape architect Anthony Sblendorio presented a concept plan for development of the property that Mr. Grano was then in contract to purchase.  The concept had some good points: a “hamlet” built of small houses on small lots, a walkable community, and COAH affordable housing. But one point, the increased density that the developers asked for, turned the large and vocal public at the meeting solidly against the concept. The public clearly stated it wanted to see this land preserved in particular, but also to control development in Delaware Township in general.

At the next Township Committee meeting, on April 11, Dave Bond announced that he and Jim McCue were looking into preserving the property; Mr. Bond said he had already spoken to Mr. Grano.  At this time, Mr. Grano was still only a contract purchaser; he did not own the property until May 25.  Even though the Township Committee had decided it wanted to buy the property, it did not make an offer to the Kean heirs, but instead simply waited for Mr. Grano to close and then negotiated with him. This was an opportunity lost.

Negotiating the Preservation.
Mr. Bond met with Mr. Grano for four months of confidential discussions, and emerged with a deal that let Mr. Grano keep the manor house, guaranteed him permission to build five new houses on that parcel, and promised to pay him back all $4 million dollars he paid for the property. The Township would get the 66-acre “Brown Farm”.

The Township has in place a committee for identifying and negotiating land preservation deals, the Open Space Committee. Mr. Bond never consulted them while negotiating this deal. The Post thinks that in an acquisition as expensive and complex as the Grano purchase, the Township Committee should not only consult the local governmental agencies, but also talk with the local and national non-profit organizations that are active in New Jersey. These non-profits have funding sources and expertise that were never considered for this deal. By relying on more creative financing and a larger pool of potential partners, the Township Committee would have reduced the burden on Delaware Township taxpayers. Another opportunity lost.

The Changing Environment for Land Preservation in Delaware Township
Farmland has become so expensive that new farmers starting out can’t afford to buy land here. This deal preserves land, but it does little to preserve farming. No farmer can afford, and no crop can earn, the price the Township paid for this land.

When the Township Committee purchased 33 acres of the Kean Estate for $900,000, it set a new high price. This in turn became a “comparable” price in the Township’s subsequent preservation effort for the rest of the estate. By buying the estate “retail”, the Township was raising its own costs – in effect bidding against itself.

It is difficult to say what the per-acre cost of land preservation is in this deal. But the public perception is broadly – and The Post thinks, fairly – that this is a significant new high in cost per acre. Reportedly, people considering preserving their land are already pointing to the Grano deal and asking for something comparable.

It’s often been said “we can’t afford to buy it all”. We need more techniques for controlling development than simply buying development rights. We need a strategy that manages individual deals professionally, and that handles the overall goal of controlling development in a way that doesn’t unduly burden taxpayers.

Some of our neighboring townships have controlled development by reducing permissible density. A hydrogeologist’s report commissioned by Delaware Township supports reducing density in some parts of the Township. The Township Committees in recent years have stuck to their old tack of buying land whenever there is a sufficient public outcry. Meanwhile, the cost continues to rise. More opportunities lost.

What We Need to Learn.

Delaware Township has, in the Open Space Committee [OSC], dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers capable of identifying the best properties to target for preservation and assembling funding. Our Township Committee needs to listen to and then act on the OSC’s recommendations. When faced with a complex project like this, the Township Committee should also seek advice from other experts in land preservation, such as the non-profits and land trusts. When the Township Committee acts alone, results are unfavorable: less land preserved at increased cost.

Delaware Township can not continue to try to control development and preserve land by competing in the real estate market. Developers have deeper pockets than taxpayers. We can’t afford to pay our way to rural preservation.

The proposed buildout of the Grano property shocked the public, and rightly so. And while this whole protracted and expensive effort did result in the preservation of one significant and beautiful piece of land, there are many more that could be turned into tract housing starting at the next Planning Board meeting.

Delaware Township should heed the 2004  hydrogeologist’s report and reduce its permissible density: increase the minimum allowable lot size.  This is also known as downzoning.  The Township Committee is aware of the technique called “transfer of development rights” (TDR) that preserves land through clustering, but hasn’t acted on what it knows. What is needed is action.

In its six months in office, the current Township Committee has debated a driveway ordinance, the fingerprinting of volunteers, and the banning of dogs from community day in Dilts Park. While these proposals all have their merits, they are not as important to our future as controlling development. We urge the Township Committee to take action before the current year is out.