The Farmland Assessment Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Constitution allow for eligible farmland to be assessed at lower standards. Specifically, under the Farmland Assessment Act, upon application, the value of land (over 5 acres) that is actively devoted for agricultural/horticultural uses for at least 2 successive years immediately preceding the tax year at issue, is to be assessed at a value for agricultural or horticultural uses. Certain minimal revenue generating requirements pertaining to the sale of agricultural/horticultural products produced on the property must also be shown. The primary goals of the statute and constitutional amendment are to preserve “family farms” by providing “family” farmers with economic relief and to assist with the preservation of open space. However, as set forth below, even if a property meets all of the standards of the Farmland Assessment Act, if it is also used for commercial purposes, the benefits of the statute may not apply.
In Atlantic Coast LEH, LLC v. Twp. of Little Egg Harbor, the Tax Court concluded that the subject property, a 12 acre, mostly vacant plot of land, which contained a 290-foot, income-generating, cellular communications tower and eight beehives, did not qualify for farmland assessment pursuant to the Farmland Assessment Act of 1964, N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.1. The owner paid an out-of-state beekeeper to maintain eight beehives onsite used for the production of honey, wax and other products, presumably in order to qualify the property for farmland assessment status. Although beehives were placed within the fenced-in area of the cellular tower (in order to provide protection from bears that roamed the property), the bees foraged plants throughout the lot and the beekeeper would purchase all apiary products the bees make onsite for amounts just above the statutory minimum to qualify for farmland assessment status.
It was undisputed that the subject property technically satisfied all requirements of the Farmland Assessment Act. However, because the subject property was also actively devoted to a non-agriculture/horticultural use, i.e., the operation of the cellular communications tower onsite, the court needed to determine whether the beekeeping use was the dominant use of the property in order for the Farmland Assessment Act to apply.
The Court ultimately concluded that the dominant use of the property was the cellular tower, not the beekeeping activities. The property’s history revealed a significant zoning and transactional history primarily pertaining to the intent to construct the cellular tower onsite. Even though the bees foraged the entire property, the Court concluded that the operation of the 290 foot high cellular tower dominates over the beekeeping activity with respect to its size and all of the beehives were contained within the fencing of the cellular tower. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the plaintiff failed to satisfy its burden of demonstrating its entitlement to farmland assessment status.