For the first time in the history of the township, Robbinsville residents rejected a request by the township to increase funds for open space acquisition.
In the November elections, township voters rejected a referendum question asking to increase the township’s open space tax by 2 cents per $100 of assessed valuation by a vote of 2,610 to 1,890 (58 %to 42%). The additional revenue could have been used to be acquire, improve, maintain and preserve open space.
In the past, Robbinsville open space tax referendums have been approved by a comfortable margin.
By comparison, voters approved a 1.5-cent open space tax increase by a vote of 4,609 to 2,457. The purpose of that referendum was help fund the purchase and preservation of two properties encompassing more than 400 acres.
Robbinsville Advance editor Bill Sanservino recently sat down with Mayor Dave Fried to discuss issues impacting the township as it moves forward into the new year, including the future of the township’s open space program.
An edited version of that open space discussion is printed below. Other topics will be printed in future issues of the Advance.
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Robbinsville Advance: What are your thoughts on why the open space referendum results turned out the way they did?
Mayor Dave Fried: So, you know, I frankly take a lot of responsibility for that on myself. We have passed our open space questions. They’ve easily passed. But, we’ve always identified property and there’s always been a property associated with that, and it’s difficult to get people to want to increase their taxes.
Typically, if you’re going to have people want to reach into their wallet and increase their taxes, which is sort of a counter intuitive move, you need to give them a reason. And we really did not do a good job giving them a reason.
We did not identify which spaces we were looking at. We did not do a really good job explaining why those spaces would become residential, and we really didn’t do a good job of explaining why over time it actually saves you money.
I should have done a much better job of communicating exactly what spaces we were looking at and also the return on investment on that.
In the last election (prior to 2022) there was a group who was fighting us, so there was an ample opportunity for me to be constantly responding to and talking about the information that they were putting out there and why it wasn’t correct.
This year was very quiet. No one really understood what it was for, why it was happening, which spaces it included—so we needed to do a much better job of informing the residents and really explaining to them why this was a good idea.
I take full responsibility for that one. I should have really, really done a much better job communicating what we were doing and why we were doing it.
RA: Do you think the economic climate had anything to do it?
DF: 100%. You know, inflation is affecting everyone. Anybody who’s been to the store knows what’s going on. I mean, look, eggs are becoming more of a luxury item. If you’d told me that two years ago, I would have laughed at you. I mean, you’re really seeing people who are affected by the economy for sure.
I think 2 cents was probably also too much. We probably should have gone out for 1 penny, especially since I didn’t have the second property really ready for open space. It was more of a want than a need for the Lavender Farm.
Right now it’s an absolute need. We have gotten a petition together, and we’ve got a number of signatures from residents that would like us to go out again. We’ve also gotten a commitment from the county that they’ll actually commit to 40% of the purchase, which will bring the purchase price way down.
We could probably do this purchase, you know, for a penny. So I think we may consider going back out again. We’ve got to talk to the council about whether or not that makes sense, but I think we may go back out and ask the voters to do it again with a very specific piece of property in mind, knowing that the county is going to contribute.
And now when they realize that this property is in such proximity of so many other neighborhoods, this really is the center of quite a number of neighborhoods. I do think people will look at it a little bit in a different light.
RA: Would this be a referendum question next November or could you hold a special election?
DF: I always like to do it in November, because I feel like you get the largest portion of voters.
When you’re asking a question like this, I never take these things personally, even though I’ll take responsibility for not doing a good job communicating.
At the end of the day, it’s everyone else’s town. It’s really everyone’s decision whether we decide to do open space. It’s not something we have to do. It’s something we want to do. It’s a choice. So I don’t ever like to make those decisions willy nilly.
I really kind of want to get a feel for how everyone is feeling, and from that you get an answer. Whether this is or isn’t something that everyone wants to invest in. As it is now, Robbinsville has the highest open space tax in the county. However, we also have the most open space preserved of any town in the county, so you can see the direct correlation of that.
I also think we did a bad job explaining to people that we buy working farms and we rent them, which then creates income for the town. Our average payback on a piece of property is about five years, which if you think about that in terms of making your normal investment, it’s about a 20% return on your investment.
So for most people, if I said to them, Hey, you could you get a 20% return on your investment, most people would invest. And I didn’t do a good job really explaining that to the residents.
RA: What’s the specific property that you’re looking at right now?
DF: Right now I think our number one target would be the Lavender Farm on Tindall Road. I think now once the sign went up, people realized, oh, wait a minute, this is this is a property that really is in the middle of town.
It does affect everyone. It does touch quite a number of neighborhoods. It’s one of the last working larger farms that we have left. That and Wittenborn Farm (located on Robbinsville-Allentown Road, near the border with Allentown) are really the last two farms.
I know Ostrich Nursery (located on Pond Road) is also up for sale, so we may take a look at that as well. If we decide to go back out, we may look at the Lavender Farm and maybe Ostrich, which is also sort of in a close proximity of everyone else in town. I do believe we might be able to do both if the county is willing to to work with us.
RA: As currently zoned, about how many houses would could get developed on that?
DF: About 10 houses, depending on the infrastructure and environmental issues? Probably about 20 kids (added to the school district).
RA: I’m not even sure what the cost to the school district per pupil is these days...
DF: Almost $15,000.
RA: So it’s $15,000 multiplied by 20 kids. And that number never goes down, unlike the unlike the open space tax, which will go doen eventually. I covered West Windsor as a reporter back in the 1990s when they implemented what might have been one of the first open space taxes in the state, and they had to really work hard to make people realize that they’re putting the money out now, but in the long run it’s going to save millions of dollars, and you’re eliminating X number of schools kids from the district in perpetuity. Off the top of my head, I’m not sure what the math is in this case.
DF: At $15,000 for 20 kids, you’re looking at about $300,000 per year, give or take. And the property is about $1.5 million to purchase, which would be paid off in about 5 years. So you can quickly do the math. It really does make sense.
And then you take a look at all the soft costs, right? I don’t need to do trash collection. I don’t need to do policing. You just take in all the other things that we really never need to do and then you factor in the fact that we lease these properties back. Now they really make sense. And then add in the 40% contribution from the county, and now it really, really makes sense. So it takes our ROI sometimes down to three and a half years.
RA: And the landowner, or whoever, will continue to farm the property?
DF: Correct. And we have no shortage of farmers. Look, I mean we have vastly more farmers looking for property than there is property, and part of that is because there’s just so little of it left.
When you start thinking that through—and again, we talked earlier about food prices—the less farms we have, the more food prices we’re going to have. So, I mean, the fact that we still have these working farms are actually a benefit for everyone, right?
What we’re doing—growing soybeans—that’s what feeds the animals, which ultimately winds up coming back into our food supply. So all of this stuff is connected. The more working farms we have, the better off we’re going to be.
No farmer at this day and age can go out and buy a farm to actually do farming in Robbinsville, there’s just no way. There’s no set of economics where a farmer could make it buying land as valuable as it is in Robertsville. So without these open space programs, these farms for farmers would not exist.
RA: Yeah, they’d all be developed.
DF: Correct 100 percent.
RA: In general, how many houses do you think you stopped from being built through the open space tax?
DF: Oh, gosh. Since I’ve been mayor? Hundreds. For example, there would have around 300 just on Miry Run alone. We might be pushing a thousand by the time you take a look at, you know, what we’ve done out in Windsor—the Windsor farm.
RA: So you’re talking several thousand kids that weren’t added to the school district. That’s around $10 million in per pupil costs on that property alone that weren’t added to the school district every year.
DF: There is absolutely, positively no question that had we not been as aggressive as we’ve been with open space, we would have had to build another school.
If we had to build another school, you’d be looking at another $30 million in debt just to build the school and then you have to staff it. I mean, when you really start thinking that one through, there is no set of economics that doesn’t show that we have saved millions of dollars with our open space program. And the fact that we actually have farms is an added benefit, right? Because once they’re gone, they never come back.
RA: And I think farm activity and farmland areas help, in general, to raise the raise the housing values to some extent because you don’t have just an entire town with just houses.
DF: My background is in business, and when I look at an open space purchase, you hear me talk about ROI. I want to know what the payback is, why it makes sense. Show me the economics.
When I look at any business I always look at shareholder value. Am I returning value back to the shareholders. In a town that’s difficult to do, because everyone’s a stakeholder, but they’re really not shareholders.
However, you can look at—in a certain way—in home values. I know I’m doing a job well when people want to move in here, and when people want to move here, the home values are increasing.
When I took over as mayor, we had probably flat to stagnant home values. We had some of the fastest growing property taxes, but our home values were absolutely flat. We were one of the worst in the county. Today, as we sit here, only Princeton has the same return on property values as we have.
We used to benchmark ourselves against literally anyone in the county. Then we started with East Windsor. Then we started with Hopewell. Then West Windsor.
We have now exceeded Hopewell. We’ve exceeded West Windsor, and the only town in Mercer County that we now can benchmark ourselves to is Princeton. So if you really think that through, where we were to where we are now, it’s incredible that Princeton—which was light years ahead of us—is really now the town that we benchmark ourselves against.
RA: It always seemed to me that there’s a lot of residents who say, “We don’t want development in town anymore. We don’t want any more houses.” It seems to me like it’s only fair to say to them, “Okay, if you don’t want any more houses, then put your wallet where your mouth is.” Because landowners do have a right to develop their properties So if you don’t want them to develop it and you can help pay for it.
DF: I call that the drawbridge mentality, right? You move in and then you’d like to pull up the drawbridge right after you moved in and then make sure that nobody else can.
So, yes, of course, people want that. But, you know, when you think about it, there’s two things that people really don’t like. One, they don’t like development.
The second thing that people instinctively hate are taxes, so asking them to try and do one thing that you hate to avoid the other thing you hate is really hard. It’s an emotional issue when you ask people, because in New Jersey, taxes are high. I mean, there’s just no getting around that.
So asking people to pay more when they already feel like they’re paying too much is difficult. You really do have to touch their emotions and say, “Okay, well, yes, we’re doing something we don’t like to avoid something we don’t like more,” but for me, it’s a resource.
Once this land is developed, we never get it back. We never get to do a mulligan. We never get to have a do over. There’s no givebacks. Once the land is gone, it’s gone. I think generations from now, people are going to be really, really pleased with the decisions that we made here.
To think how much open space we have here in Robbinsville will be unusual compared to so many of our surrounding towns. I think it will continue to increase our property values and continue to make this one of the most desirable places to live.
Robbinsville Land Preservation Q&A
The following is an excerpt from a frequently asked questions statement released by Robbinsville Township regarding the situation with the open space tax and property acquisition as it stands in early 2023.
In an effort to better address some of the many questions surrounding the potential sale of Serenity Farms of Robbinsville (aka the Gafgen Family Farm; aka the Lavender Farm) please review the following Q&A.
Q: Why did the Township ask the voters to increase the Open Space Tax on the November 8, 2022 ballot?
A: The township asked for the 2-cent increase per every $100 of assessed value because it encourages community participation regarding these decisions.
This is not a municipal necessity, unlike public safety, trash collection and plowing streets. Robbinsville has the highest open space tax in Mercer County, but it also has preserved more open space than any other municipality since 2005. Robbinsville kept the municipal portion of your tax bill flat, or reduced it, in nine of the past 10 years, so raising taxes is obviously something it does not take lightly.
Q: Was Serenity Farms and the Wittenborn Farm candidates to be preserved as open space had the Nov. 8 ballot question passed?
Q: Can these parcels still be preserved without passage of another open space ballot question?
A: Not by the township.
Q: How much do these parcels cost?
A: As appraised, the development rights for Serenity Farms is $1.85 million, while an outright purchase would cost $2.45 million as of Jan. 10, 2022. The Wittenborn Farm was appraised at approximately $2.6 million.
Q: Why wasn’t preserving those particular farms specifically mentioned in the wording on the open space ballot question?
A: Legally, the township could not name specific parcels.
Q: What is so important about Serenity Farms?
A: The farm has a rich history, sits in the middle of town and touches quite a few neighborhoods. Also, there are simply not that many parcels of this size remaining in Robbinsville to preserve.
Q: How many houses can be built if Serenity Farms is sold and developed?
A: After wetlands and infrastructure on those 12.34 acres is considered, the township estimates 8-10 houses. It is estimated that each single-family home generates an average of 2.5 children, and it costs roughly $14,500 dollars to educate each child annually. Using those numbers, that farm will pay for itself in five years or less.
Q: Why is there so much momentum to preserving Serenity Farms before the Wittenborn Farm?
A: The Gafgen family has agreed to be part of the open space preservation program. The Wittenborn Family have not yet decided on its inclusion.
Q: Would the Township need help from Mercer County to purchase and preserve Serenity Farms
A: Yes, and any county assistance would depend heavily on how many of Robbinsville’s registered voters sign the petition currently circulating.
Q: Can residents get the open space question back on the November, 2023 election ballot?
A: Yes. The statute allows for a petition with the required number of signatures of registered township voters to be presented to Township Council. The governing body would then be required to approve the new ballot question. The number of required signatures is 15 percent of the votes cast locally in the last preceding general election, which is 732 signatures.
What does the Robbinsville School District budget and teacher contract negotiations/salaries have to do with open space and preserving farms?
The Robbinsville school district and Robbinsville Township government are two completely distinct and autonomous bodies. Open Space funds raised and designated to preserve land are not accessible to the school district.