The Time to Re-zone is Now

Delaware Township is in a position to make purposeful and significant change to its zoning.  This is an opportunity that should not be missed.

The vernacular of development in the township has been characterized by active farms and historic clusters of development: Sergeantsville, Rosemont, Sandbrook, Headquarters, Locktown, and Croton. Meanwhile much of central New Jersey, including some areas very nearby, has lost its cultural and historic identity and become characterless suburbs.  Delaware has been relatively unmarred.

Looking to our surroundings, it is quickly evident that we inhabit an island.  To the south lies Mercer County and the blighted state capital.  Bucks County struggles to maintain its stone house cachet while its sprawl and outgrown school systems make for rural traffic jams.  Beyond the tract development of Raritan and Readington lies the super-protected Highlands, which will deflect future development pressures to areas with more lax regulation.  East of Delaware Township lies Princeton and the I-95 corridor.  Where is development going to go and how is it going to unfold? To ignore the problem is the equivalent of putting our collective head in the sand.  When left to its own devices, development will not happen organically.  Developers are in the business to make a profit, not to make communities, not to save special places, not to satisfy neighbors, and certainly not with an eye to our future.

For years Planning Boards of Delaware Township have recognized weakness in our zoning.  The Master Plan speaks glowingly of preserving rural character, agriculture, natural resources, viewsheds, and narrow country roads, yet the land use ordinance does not live up to that vision.  Now the Board has adopted an amendment to the Master Plan that includes stronger and more concrete methods to affect those goals. And the Township Committee has requested an ordinance be drafted that will formalize the vision of the new Master Plan amendment.  If the ordinance is enacted, it would change the way land is subdivided and the number of future residents. It should be done promptly.

In broad strokes, there are two facets to the Planning Board’s proposal:  larger minimum lot sizes and limiting the current hamlet opportunities.

The logic behind the lot size modification is two-fold.  In the A-1 zone, where the most productive agricultural soils are, the proposal would change the zoning from 3-acre minimum to 8-acre minimum with several clustering options – some which would offer 5-acre density in return for 70% of the tract being preserved.  In the A-2 zone, where the greatest natural resource constraints exist, the proposal would take the zoning from 6-acre minimum to 7-acre minimum.  This is to ensure the safe dilution of septic effluent and recharge of groundwater for wells.

Now the Township Committee has reduced the Planning Board’s proposed hamlet possibilities to one single site – Bittersweet Farm on Rte 523 north of Stockton.  The hamlet development, while controversial, is actually a significant limitation over today’s existing hamlet possibilities.  The proposed new language would require permanent preservation of off-site property, something that does not exist in today’s ordinance language.  One must remember that the hamlet is only an option after the landowner has decided that the property will be developed.  The hamlet concept is designed to address a long-recognized problem in the township. Home prices in Delaware Township are prohibitively high to certain segments of our society – schoolteachers, policemen, retirees, and many first-time home-buyers. The required smaller lot sizes would drive smaller homes that should be more affordable.  There is nothing in the plan that would require any additional COAH development over what the township would presently have to build.

Let’s look at some of the arguments against downzoning.

The current economy is dead, and development pressures will never return to the same level. This argument is a fantasy that assumes the possession of a crystal ball.  Recently home prices have started to rebound.  Developers are known to stockpile land during down times in the market.  The U.S. population is growing and will need homes.  The township has a duty to plan for an appropriate pattern of development.

Agriculture is dead and we’ll never compete with the mega-farms of the Midwest. Another crystal ball statement.  Agriculture has been practiced in Delaware Township for  upwards of three and a half centuries and over the years has undergone significant swings, both boom and bust.  No doubt farmers during that period have bemoaned the agricultural economy and felt that the future was grim yet the fact remains that Delaware Township is a largely agricultural community.  It is tough to make a buck at farming.  It may get tougher.  Will it stay that way?  Nobody knows the future.  Will gasoline go to $4/gallon again?  How about $6 or $7?  If gas prices rise enough, we will reach a point where it does not make sense to ship food from distant continents  to the local supermarket.  Having land available for farming and for growing food locally makes sense.  Hoping or thinking that it will happen without some serious planning does not.

Another argument has it that downzoning will devalue the land and hurt the farmers. Ingrained in the essence of the U.S. Constitution is the concept of inalienable rights, included among them – property rights. Planning Board Attorney Steve Goodell recently explained to the board and the public that land owners have the right to use their property.  That right is inalienable.  Government has the right to control and direct land use though zoning.  It can limit use but it cannot eliminate use, which is to say that zoning regulations can never be so strict as to leave no use.  Government bears the responsibility to protect the public while protecting the rights of private property owners.  When our neighbors in East Amwell changed their zoning to a 10-acre minimum lot size (with a 6-acre cluster incentive), they hired a real estate expert to study land values both pre- and post-zoning change.  The conclusion was that the zoning change had no effect on values.  Certainly, real estate markets vary and any diminution in value may be regained through the law of supply and demand.  With a smaller supply, the greater demand will increase value.

Land is worth protecting – for agriculture and for natural resource protection.  It is wise to ensure a healthy and diverse cross-section of society – not just an enclave of the wealthy and wealthier.  The time to act is now.