A Plea for Simple and Effective Zoning Change

A strong turnout at Delaware Township’s special August 18th meeting, to present the latest re-zoning proposal, suggests it might have something to offend almost everyone. The modest “down-zoning” (increase in minimum building lot sizes) decreases the “lot yield” and, thus maybe the cash, large landowners can expect to receive when they subdivide their farms. And it’s hard for anyone who expects to remain in Delaware Township to quickly get comfortable with the plan to build three big new subdivisions.

Some five years ago the township hired a professional hydrogeologist to study the ability of the land to absorb the waste from additional housing. The conclusion was that our current zoning is so dense that sewage will run into the streams at unacceptable levels as the farms are converted to developments.  Already, in low lying areas of the township near the streams, there is often a smell like sewage after a hard rain, presumably due to the failure of the existing septic systems and treatment plant to perform adequately.

The proposed increase of minimum lot size from six to seven acres in the A-2 zone is not nearly enough to keep pollution within legal requirements, according to our hydrogeology study. The proposed increase from three to eight acres in the A-1 zone helps a lot, as long as the septic systems are in the best farm soil, but isn’t enough to satisfy state requirements. We can assume that pollution from the three big dense subdivisions allowed under the “non-contiguous clustering” rules will be adequately regulated, due to the construction of new treatment plants.

The “Garden State” of New Jersey was converted hundreds of years ago from forests into farmland, interspersed with towns as processing, transportation, and manufacturing hubs. In the last fifty years distaste for life in the riot-torn cities, the hard work of making a living by farming, and the profit-seeking of developers, have collaborated to turn much of the state into sprawling suburbs. Delaware Township has made it a foundation of its formal Master Plan that it will try to remain primarily an agricultural community.

The zoning now in place does nothing to preserve the rural character of the township, or encourage farming. In fact, it is a prescription for suburban sprawl, if better protections are not implemented. The remaining agricultural character of the township is due not to strong zoning, but to the the resistance of local farmers to selling out, combined with the most successful preservation efforts in the state, for both of which we can all be very thankful. But with neighboring areas now strongly protected by the Highlands Act and strong local zoning, our relatively remote location will be much less protection than it has been, once the economy improves.

The proposed increase from six to seven acre lot size in the A-2 zone is practically no change, while the increase from three to eight acre lots in the A-1 zone is a significant improvement. On this, some of the best farmland in the state, with the strong incentive provided by the farmland assessment laws, most people on lots over eight acres will establish a farm of some kind. This is already true, and is partly responsible for our township’s rural character, and preserves the infrastructure that supports farming.

Regarding the proposed “non-contiguous clustering” option, where big dense developments are allowed, if the development rights on outlying farms are bought up and retired at the rate of one house per three acres: There would be significant increases in the dense housing of Sergeantsville and Rosemont, with a big, high density suburban subdivision near Stockton. In exchange, several outlying farms would be protected, and remain as large as they are today. This plan means to be superior to the alternative of all those farms, not just three, being subdivided to three acre lots, destroying them all as farms. And it is meant to allow the large landowners to maximize their capital gain by selling development rights at the currently allowed rate dictated by three acre minimum lot sizes.

There appears to be a lot of discomfort with the current proposal. I think much of it is due to the fearsome impact of actual plans for big, dense developments presented by our leaders. While I agree that this plan is superior, in the very long term, to the township’s getting built out according to the current zoning rules, there remains a clear choice that is far better still.

We should simply increase the minimum lot size in the A-1 zone to at least the eight acres proposed, and leave out the complicated non-contiguous clustering option and the new planned communities. I am convinced a large majority of the residents of the township would support this.

Some large landowners, and their powerful lobbying group, the Farm Bureau, will instinctively reject this plain down-zoning as taking away equity in their property. It is difficult for me to feel sorry for those who purchased the land as an investment, such as Robert Toll of Toll Brothers, who owns 328 acres in the A-1 zone west of Rosemont, by far the biggest block of developable land in the township. Land in Delaware Township has seen a stunning increase in value over the long term, even if sold in lots of eight or ten acres rather than three. And all farmers, whether they bought the land or inherited it, must be grateful, as we all are, that every previous landowner chose not to turn those farm fields into sprawl. Delaware Township deserves to have its remaining farms stay in lots large enough that they will, or at least can, be farmed.

Charles Taylor
Delaware Township