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The Final Frontier In NJ’s Long Running Land Use War

Climate Emergency Demands A Forest And Farmland Preservation Act

NJ friends are telling me disturbing things.

They say that at a recent BPU solar meeting, that the solar industry was seeking support from conservation groups for some kind of solar “dual use” policy for siting massive solar arrays on farmland, supposedly allowing agricultural uses to be maintained. BPU spewed the industry’s Orwellian terms and BPU staff recommended:

2. Dual-Use Agriculture (“agrivoltaics”):

New Jersey has a rich agricultural heritage that must be considered with the State’s move toward a carbon-free energy sector. While all projects must meet the siting criteria described in the “Siting” section below, this Successor Straw also proposes to pilot a program for grid supply solar projects that are compatible with agricultural uses.

Staff currently proposes to define a dual-use solar energy generation facility as a facility: (i) that allows the use of the land below the panels to simultaneously be used for agricultural or horticultural use; and (ii) for which productive agricultural or horticultural use continues, as a condition for receiving incentives as a dual-use project. Staff anticipates that a cross-agency team will further define the pilot program and develop technical rules for dual-use farmland standards.

e. Solar Siting

As evidenced by the proposed design of this Successor Program, Staff seeks to uphold the State’s policies of expanding New Jersey’s commitment to affordable renewable energy while also preserving and protecting open space and farmland. Staff suggests that this is best accomplished by encouraging the development of solar facilities on the built environment and marginal lands and away from open space, flood zones, forested lands, high value agricultural lands and other areas especially vulnerable to climate change.

The solar industry argued that such a policy was better than allowing farmlands to be converted to development.

[Update: 5/4/21 – here’s that absurd premise “development is inevitable and unstoppable” and false comparison, right out in the open in a Spotlight Op-Ed today:

This [solar] income can easily make the difference between a sustainable farm that can be passed on to the next generation and one that must be carved up into residential building lots or sold off to a warehouse developer. ~~~ end update]

Now if that were not crazy enough, I was told that Tom Gilbert of NJ Conservation Foundation spoke and he signaled a willingness to compromise on some kind of policy whereby solar could be sited on less productive or abandoned farmlands.

Of course, those lands should be priority targeted for planting trees, or afforestation:

A key finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) new special report is that it is likely that some degree of “afforestation” will be needed to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Tom has been horrible on climate and energy policy, he was terrible in recent testimony on “forest stewardship” legislation, and now he’s selling out land use.

Don’t let that happen.

Instead of compromising away what little is left of NJ’s forests and farmlands, it’s time for the conservation, environmental, justice, and climate communities to work together and fight the final battle to preserve what’s left.

The current incremental strategy – which amounts to case by case litigation, local site specific land use battles, and reliance on the land trusts and Foundation funded “environmental groups” to cut deals with the solar industry – surely has failed and will kill what’s left.

The climate science; land use, forestry, and agricultural policy; and the politics could actually work together to support a very aggressive demand for a NJ Forest And Farmland Preservation Act.

The idea is simple: preserve what’s left before NJ’s is either fully built out or inundated by sea level rise.

(and where are all those people now living along shorelines and rivers going to relocate when the inevitable next major floods hit and the sea level rises? Not all of them can move to Florida. They’re going to demand to develop what’s left of NJ’s higher elevation lands.)

[Update: 5/7/21 – this is no theoretical issue. Take a look at the dystopian disaster of climate refugees in California right now. ~~~ end update]

This final frontier of the NJ land use battle could be tied to climate policy via carbon sequestration (in soils and vegetation).

Forests and soils store (sequester) large amounts of carbon – as DEP’s Climate science based Global Warming Response Act “80 x 50″ Report documents. That alone is a compelling reason to preserve what’s left of NJ’s forests and farms.

But we also need and will become far more reliant on the food that NJ farms produce (way beyond the current “locavore” and “farm to table” boutique trends).

And we don’t have enough water supply or wastewater treatment capacity to serve the new development of those precious lands.

And we don’t have the money for the roads, schools, and other infrastructure and social services for that new development.

And compliance with our carbon budget would make such development impossible.

NJ is already built out and the climate emergency will greatly worsen current density problems and increase the costs of the current development footprint.

Financing could come from some form of  progressively structured carbon price/tax (way beyond the meager RGGI allowance prices and Societal Benefits Charge), new corporate taxes, and expansion of the current Green Acres, Farmland Preservation, and TDR programs in the Pinelands and Highlands.

The total cost of the program could be lowered by an appraisal method that based “market value” on environmental constraints, not local zoning and so called speculative “development potential”. The local property tax avoidance benefits of the current farmland preservation programs could be factored into the compensation scheme. Compensation to landowners could be phased. Courts have supported deep diminution of property value against “takings” challenges, so the private landowner compensation would not need to be close to 100%.

Politically, this initiative could attract a coalition with all the anti-warehouse development folks and the urban EJ folks who seek private and public reinvestment in urban communities (without gentrifying them). Massive urban forestry and housing energy efficiency and electrification programs – required to meet climate goals –  would provide major employment and economic benefits to urban communities.

But in order to make this happen, there would need to be a radical transformation in the thinking and politics of the current crop of NJ’s conservation, climate and environmental “leaders”.

It would require that major donors – Foundations like Wm. Penn and Dodge – actually fund something that upsets the political and economic status quo and challenges corporate interests ands corporate power.

What the heck, we could even call it the Jeff Tittel Legacy Act! (and justify it by the climate emergency).

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