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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.”

Joe VanHandel November 15, 2011 at 04:31 AM
But it was ok for the township to allow mcgraw hill to do this, but i guess since they donated 2 acres for the town, its ok right? and the land was zoned office research, and they did rezone it. amazing how a little kickback works.
Marc Covitz November 15, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Hi Joe: Regarding my comment on taxes, I was referring to the taxes you will be paying when you sell to EffiSolar. The taxes on the sale of your land to EffiSolar will be more then the taxes you would pay selling the land for preservation. In fact, it is likely you would pay no tax at all if you sell for preservation. When you say "current preservation money isn't where it was a few years back," I'm not sure how you can say this without filing an application. If you are basing your comment on what other farmers you know are getting now (and you think they are being underpaid), that is a poor assumption. land is appraised for preservation based on numerous factors: how many homes could be built on the property, what environmental constraints exist on the property and what is the quality of the soils on the property? You are correct that it can take time for a preservation deal to come through. A lot of this depends on what funding sources are being used. In many cases, there are many funding sources put together for a preservation deal (Town, County, State and sometimes donors or non-profit funds/grants). With regard to removing the panels after 15 years when the solar bubble bursts, who is to say that EffiSolar won't turn into a housing development company at that time and look to build homes on the property? Definitely not something EW wants to see.
Marc Covitz November 15, 2011 at 04:01 PM
Hi Joe: I think you are going to have a long battle on your hands trying to get the solar project through. Your farm is in a target preservation area not only for EW but also for Mercer County. With all of the legal battles you may face, you probably will get paid more quickly if you preserve the tract. I think you will also be pleasantly surprised at the money you will receive from preservation. The reason EffiSolar doesn't want you talking to the Town or County about preservation is because they know the preservation dollars are competitive. If you talk to the Town about preservation (file and application, get the appraisals, etc...) and EffiSolar ends your contract, they will resign you if they really want you bad enough. They are doing the same thing throughout our area. Also, I was against the solar panels at McGraw Hill too. That whole area should be a protective area to the Millstone River. Not sure what was going on there but I don't think giving the town 2 acres was the impetus. If the area is zoned office, research that is a type of commercial zone and the solar panels do fit in to that kind of zone. They do not fit into an agricultural zone (a zone targeted to remain agricultural).
Marc Covitz November 15, 2011 at 05:37 PM
Hi George: Yes, this economy is the perfect time to preserve land. Since there is less pressure from housing we have more time for preservation deals to go through. Also, you are already paying a County Open Space Tax. This is for land preservation and recreation. Studies have shown that commercial development is not a benefit to the local tax base (the solar field is a commercial development and will pay the same tax as any other development). While it will not add school children it will require police patrols and fire/first aid service in the event of an emergency. As you increase development in a town, police, fire and first aid services must also increase and these things come out of you taxes. So, what you might get in taxes from a commercial development you lose when you have to pay for the services it needs. Open space in the long run costs less. While you pay up front there is virtually no cost for services. I refer you to the following studies: 1. "The Ratables Chase" by Dr. Leonard Hamilton, 1992. Commissioned by the Great Swamp Watershed Association. 2. "The Cost of Community Services Report," 1997. Commissioned by the American Farm Trust. 3. "Chasing Their Tails," July 2010. NJ Future. http://www.njfuture.org/research-publications/research-reports/ratables-chase-doesnt-pay/
Joe VanHandel November 15, 2011 at 09:24 PM
In any event , we have 2 more years on our contract with effisolar, and if i negotiate at all with the township, or the county, it will void our contract, and they will sue us for there costs involved. At this time we are proceeding with the solar. Im quite sure that effi wouldnt have extended there contract if they thought they would loose this battle. Plus i have a personal interest because we do not want to be told what we can do with our property that is going on 5 generations. The tactics of the mayor , if more professional, could have made all the differance in the case. Also, the mayor keeps insisting we arent zoned for solar, well mcgraw hill was zoned office research. What is it zoned now?? Im sure the aproval process went quickly on that project, in consideration for the 2 acres that mcgraw hill donated for the townships solar project. Back door polatics are out of control in east windsor.

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