One of the criticisms of the farmland preservation program is its effect on the morphology of development in the state. The map above is a depiction of all of the preserved farms, and active applications in New Jersey overlaid on municipal and county boundaries as current as 2018. Each brown, tan, or orange spot represents one parcel of land that is currently, or proposed to serve an agricultural use for the foreseeable future. One of the most striking qualities of this map is the distribution of the preserved parcels throughout the state. Aside from a few outliers, the parcels are biased to the western half of the state, with a regular spotty distribution in the north, and two distinct, dense clusters in the south. This pattern is the end result of a problematic morphology fuelled by the processes of the program itself.
In order to understand the spotty distribution of preserved lands throughout the state, we must first understand the process that a parcel must undergo in order to be considered for preservation through government purchase of future development rights. Throughout the process there are many factors that can determine the eligibility for preservation. Firstly, the land must meet a minimum criteria set forth by the State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC) including, size, adjacencies and zoning determined by county, sales, soil viability, and agricultural sales. Once lands have met the minimum criteria, approvals are granted by the SADC and land undergoes an appraisal. Finally, if terms are agreed to, then purchases are finalized. It is also important to note that land owners must opt-in to the preservation program individually in order to be considered. The main result of the many variables and moving parts of the preservation process is inconsistency. In short, some parcels are preserved, and some aren’t. With no overarching organization preserved lands are distributed sporadically sharing adjacencies with unpreserved land that is still vulnerable to sale and development.
The most concerning part about sporadic distribution of preserved lands is the potential for exurban development islands they create. Published in 2001, the New Jersey Future Report: Rethinking Farmland in New Jersey warns us of the “checkerboard preservation pattern” arising from preserved land. It states, “farm properties have been preserved in a checkerboard pattern that permits – and often encourages – intrusive residential subdivision.” For example, consider four neighboring farm parcels in a district that is newly eligible for state level preservation: parcels A, B, C & D. The owner of parcel A opts in to the preservation program and is approved. The owner of parcel B does not opt in and sells their property to a developer. The owner of parcel C, similar to A opts in and is approved. Lastly, the owner of parcel D opts in and is rejected due to not meeting the sales criteria and is forced to sell their property to avoid bankruptcy. The alternating pattern of preserved, and developed properties creates a checker board of voids available for development surrounded by parcels that are bound to be farms indefinitely.
The resulting “intrusive residential subdivisions” described in the New Jersey Future report, used to fill the voids left over by preserved lands create an unsustainable exurban condition for residential development. Since these void lands are surrounded by preserved property, it is nearly impossible to connect them to public transportation infrastructure, supporting industrial, or commercial development, and other complementary types of development. This isolation creates a breeding ground for large single family homes, or commuter style developments. Without the support of transportation and local infrastructure these developments are largely exclusive, resulting in a predisposition to residents of high socioeconomic status based on race and class. There is a long and well documented history of inequity in suburban development, and these exurban developments continue to perpetuate that history.