State lawmakers are working on what they say will be a comprehensive plan to help farmers make money with a package that expands the non-agricultural activities that would be allowed on preserved land.

At its first meeting of the new session, the Assembly Agriculture Committee advanced bills that would make permanent a pilot program allowing ‘special occasion events’ at wineries on preserved farmland, take a step toward invalidating state regulations on such wineries as being too burdensome and allow preserved farms to begin conducting similar events.

Amy Hansen, a policy analyst for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said the plans go beyond agritourism that promote a farm’s products and gives back non-agricultural commercial rights for which the public paid when the farms were preserved.

“We’re worried that this will weaken the integrity of the program and harm the public’s trust in the program by allowing really, really big events and traffic and the other issues that it would possibly create,” Hansen said.

“We’re turning farms into Disney World with amusement rides, adventure activities, bounce houses, group hubs, weddings, bed and breakfasts, tractor repair, music festivals, and wineries,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The people of New Jersey paid to protect this land and keep it as farmland.”

Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, D-Monmouth, said a preserved farm has sold its development rights, not its commercial rights.

“Our intent is to do all that we can to mark farming viable in the state of New Jersey. And just because the state has purchased your developmental rights does not mean that we’re telling you you’re limited on how much money you can make on your farm and what you can and can’t do on your farm,” said Houghtaling. “I mean, it’s still a farm. The only thing you cannot do anymore is sell it for commercial purposes.”

The bill would allow preserved farms that aren’t in residential areas to hold up to 14 special occasion events a year. Those in residential areas could hold seven. More could be held if local ordinances allow for that. Owners of preserved farms couldn’t build new structures or extend utility lines solely to hold special events.

The Legislature passed similar legislation last month on the final day of the previous legislative session, 38-0 in the Senate and 76-0 in the Assembly, but it was ‘pocket vetoed’ by Gov. Phil Murphy and didn’t become law.

Opponents of the package said the bills are premature because a State Agriculture Development Committee working group is still completing a review of the pilot program that allowed special events in wineries on preserved farmland. They said the bills should wait until the review is complete.

“Is this bill a good place marker? Yes, there are benefits in here. Are there things we would like to see differently? Possibly, based upon what comes out of the work of the SADC,” said Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau. “We invested a lot of time, money, and we’d like to see that process through.”

Assemblyman Ron Dancer, R-Ocean, said the SADC report will be taken under consideration but that lawmakers can’t delay because the pilot program expires May 30. If the bill isn’t passed by the end of March, when most of the Legislature recesses for state budget hearings, it might expire – and Dancer says that would be a problem for June wedding season.

“The biggest day in her life, that she’s planned for, this state Legislature, this committee is not going to be in a position where we told her you can’t get married where you made a booking a year ago,” Dancer said.

Frank Marshall, associate general counsel for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the current rules for the winery events pilot program, which were adopted in 2017, should remain in place while the SADC completes its report.

“These preserved farms were preserved using state funds, so it’s appropriate that they have a level of oversight and scrutinized because of the way that it’s the taxpayers’ money that’s being used,” Marshall said.

Dancer said the rules include provisions that are “certainly outside of the scope of the spirit and the intent” of the 2014, such as requiring wineries to retaining an engineer or surveyor to register for the program and provide detailed information about their outside income, including off-premises winery sales. Income from special events can’t exceed half of a farm’s total annual income.

Dancer said lawmakers want to provide the special-occasion marketing tool to all preserved farms, after more than five years of good experiences at wineries.

“I think where the public has an investment, they are also entitled to have an opportunity to come to farms on certain special occasion events,” Dancer said. “It heightens public awareness. It gives the public the access to what they have in fact invested and purchased.”

If the resolution invalidating the rules is enacted by the Legislature, the SADC would have 30 days to amend or withdraw the rules, or the Legislature could pass another concurrent resolution to exercise its authority under the state Constitution to invalidate them.

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