Solar Farm Dispute Leaves Landowners in Limbo
Farm owners say they want to sell to the solar company but the township aims to preserve the property.
An East Windsor farm family is prepared to sell its property to a solar developer, but the township opposes the sale and wants to buy the property for open space.
The Township Council plans to appraise the approximately 80-acre property, even though its owners, the VanHandel family, have no intention of selling the property to the township. The VanHandels want to sell the farm to EffiSolar Energy Corporation, which has filed an application to build a solar farm on the property.
The impasse could leave the future of the property in limbo because Mayor Janice Mironov said there has not been any discussion to use eminent domain to acquire the Cedarville Farm. At the same time, the solar company plans to submit a new application to the Township in the next few weeks.
The VanHandel family has owned the farm for 75 to 80 years and the family members are ready to get out of the business, according the property owner's son, Joseph VanHandel. He said they want to sell the farm to the solar company so his parents can retire. The township's plan, he said, would force the family to continue farming.
“It would force him to farm for the rest of his life,” VanHandel said during last week's Township Council meeting. “My parents are trying to retire, farmland preservation won’t pay a quarter of what we were offered.”
The solar company filed an application with the township on June 24, and four days later a resolution was passed opposing the use of productive farmland for solar, according to Mark Bellin, a consultant for EffiSolar.
Bellin said Friday the company has revised the plan and intends to resubmit an application in the next couple of weeks.
“Effi’s position is we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to put in a very good application for an inherently beneficial use and we think it should go to a fair and equalized hearing,” said John Giunco, the lawyer for EffiSolar, on Saturday.
The farm is located near a substation and the plans were for the power to go into the grid at the substation, Bellin said.
“Our plans are to hopefully put a solar field on the property,” Bellin said. “We really don’t want trouble, we just want to make an application for a solar farm and then to build it.”
The township has different goals for the property.
“A this point we’ve indicated that we want to continue to discuss acquisition of the property and at this point we want to get valuations,” Mayor Janice Mironov said Friday.
Mironov said there are three ways the town used to acquire land for farmland preservation. The town can encourage the farmer to apply for the farmland preservation program and the township purchasing the development rights; the town purchases the property at market value and it is not formally put in the farmland preservation program; and the town purchases the property at market value and becomes the applicant for the farmland preservation program.
“Our overall goal is we have a number of properties, including these [the Cedarville Farm], that we would like to see remain part of that overall rural agricultural character that is such an attractive part of East Windsor Township,” Mironov said Saturday.
She also noted the farm is zoned rural agricultural and the solar is not a permitted use.
The Township Council decided last Tuesday to move forward with the appraisal process on the property, even though the VanHandels are in a two-year contract with the solar company. This contract prevents the family from discussing any other offers on the property, according to VanHandel. Council member Marsha Weinstein was the only member of council to vote against continuing with the appraisal process.
“I understand what the owners of the property are saying and at this point I really would be concerned about doing anything that could harm them and harm their property,” she said during the meeting.
The rest of the council disagreed and voted to move forward with the appraisal process of the Cedarville farm property.
VanHandel said he was never notified that his property was listed on the discussion portion of Tuesday’s council agenda, but Mironov said she knew they were coming and that is why it was on the agenda.
“We’re human beings too, we’re part of the township. I feel very stunted that you guys [the Township Council] never asked anything to do with our property and yet it’s on the agenda to make a decision on the rest of their lives,” VanHandel said at Tuesday’s council meeting.
George Asprocolas, a Millstone resident who sits on the Millstone agriculture development board and farmland preservation and open space council, said at the council meeting that in Millstone they never put out an agenda with a list of acquisitions without notifying the property owners.
“To have them not even being aware that an acquisition statement is on this agenda is ludicrous,” Asprocolas said. “These are the primary parties of your discussions and they should be there every step of the way,”
VanHandel reiterated to the Township council that they do not want to sell their property to them and will not discuss any offers with them.
“You want to buy a piece of property for open space, that’s fine, but not ours. Ours is already in a contract,” VanHandel said. “We’re going to sell it to the solar company.”