By David Levinsky - www.phillyburbs.com
TRENTON — Legislation that cracks down on so-called “fake farmers” who do little to qualify for New Jersey’s lucrative farmland tax break was advanced Thursday by an Assembly panel, but it will not likely be voted on by the full Assembly this week.
The measure would raise the bar for landowners to qualify for the farmland assessment by requiring them to prove sales of at least $1,000 in farm products from a minimum of 5 acres rather than the current $500 requirement.
The legislation would also require an advisory committee to review that minimum every three years, and mandate that tax assessors in many communities receive training to better recognize what does and does not qualify as a farm.
The Assembly Appropriations Committee approved the bill last week, but committee chairman John Burzichelli, D-3rd of Paulsboro, said it would not be posted at Thursday’s Assembly voting session unless officials from the state departments of Agriculture and Treasury sign off on the measure’s language.
At issue is which of the two departments will write the regulations needed to implement the bill.
“Unless the Department of Agriculture is happy, the bill will not see the floor,” said Burzichelli, who is also one of the Assembly’s sponsors.
The Senate approved the bill last year.
Supporters said changes to the assessment program are long overdue and necessary to prevent abuses by landowners who perform minimal farming actions to avoid paying full taxes on their properties.
Musician Bruce Springsteen, Congressman Jon Runyan, Commerce Bank (now TD Bank) founder Vernon Hill and former Gov. Christie Whitman have been cited as examples of wealthy New Jerseyans who have qualified for the up to 98 percent tax break on parts of their properties.
“All too often we’ve unfortunately seen landowners take advantage of the outdated $500 limit and find ways to claim they’re doing agriculture on the land when, in fact, they’re not actually farming,” Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said in a statement. “Agriculture is New Jersey’s heritage, and we should always be doing what we can to ensure its future success. But we need to also ensure that programs like this benefit only those who are truly doing farming.”
Singleton and Burzichelli are two of the four Assembly sponsors of the bill. Sens. Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, and Jennifer Beck, R-11th of Red Bank, sponsored the bill approved by the Legislature’s upper house.
“After several years of advocacy on this issue, I am pleased that we are moving closer than ever to strengthening this law,” Beck said Thursday.