Two bills moving through the Legislature would allow widespread construction of wind turbines on New Jersey farmland that the state has spent more than $1 billion over the years to preserve for strictly agricultural purposes.

Opponents say the bills would gut the intent of the state’s farmland preservation program and turn acres of farmland into commercial energy production centers. They also argue that the bills leave municipal governments helpless to regulate wind turbine projects.

Supporters say the proposed measures would not only make it easier to build needed green-energy systems but would give cash-strapped farmers the extra money they need to run their operations.

Cumberland and Salem counties are among the areas targeted for wind turbine construction by renewable-energy companies. Those counties have vast areas of farmland and the kind of wind patterns — which sweep off Delaware Bay — needed to keep the giant turbines spinning.

Opponents of the bills cite three projects proposed in Cumberland and Salem counties that they say show the extent to which preserved farmland would be turned into a nonagricultural commercial venture.

Toms River-based Delsea Energy wants to build what company officials say would be the biggest wind turbine system in New Jersey in those counties. The projects in Upper Deerfield, Upper Pittsgrove and Alloway townships involve about 24 wind turbines on more than 1,200 acres of preserved farmland. The $54 million worth of wind turbines would generate 38.4 megawatts of energy, which Delsea Energy estimates is enough power to satisfy the needs of 28 percent of households in Cumberland and Salem counties.

Delsea Energy President John Abene said the project also would help farmers stay in business by providing them with “thousands and thousands” of dollars they need to keep their farms operating.

“It’s a guaranteed income,” he said.

While Delsea Energy officials would not provide specifics about lease agreements with farmers, officials with the State Agriculture Development Committee, which oversees the farmland preservation program, said some agreements reportedly pay $10,000 to $15,000 per wind turbine per year.

Cathy Griscom raises Holstein cattle on part of a 120-acre farm the family has owned for five generations in Upper Deerfield Township. The Cumberland County farm is included in the Delsea Energy proposal. The Griscom family sold the development rights to the land to the state several years ago, but the need for more cash to run the farm makes allowing wind turbines on the property attractive.

“There’s a bottom line,” Griscom said. “Do we seek reimbursement for it? Yes. With the way farming is, with the way the economy is going, we have a right to survive, too.”

Griscom said concrete bases for four wind turbines would occupy less than an acre of land. She said that leaves plenty of room to raise the Holsteins and for a tenant to continue his nursery operations.

But the bills face growing opposition from agriculture officials — including state Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher, a Cumberland County native — and environmental groups in South Jersey.

They contend that allowing wind turbines on preserved farmland violates the intent of the state program that has paid farmers $1.4 billion since 1986 for the development rights to their property. They argue that those farmers would be double-dipping by getting paid for hosting commercial development on acreage for which they took taxpayer money to keep solely as farmland. They further argue that arrangement would jeopardize current and future state farmland preservation efforts by eroding public trust in the programs.

“It’s a bad idea,” said Shirley Kline, Cumberland County Board of Agriculture chairwoman. “When you do that, you destroy the land for farming. Those farmers sold their development rights. They made those conscious decisions to sell those development rights. The only thing that land should be used for is farming.”

Kline said it is time to enlist state legislators from South Jersey to try to block the bills from becoming law.

Matthew Blake, manager of the American Littoral Society’s Delaware Bay project, said, “You can’t have continued public support for open space and farmland if they’re going back after the fact and essentially giving those (development rights) to special interests. This really does run roughshod over all the good planning to protect working farms in South Jersey.”

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities also is lining up opposition, primarily because the bills would diminish local control over wind turbine projects.

The bills make wind turbine projects a permitted use, meaning they would undergo minimal review by municipal planning boards, which could consider only limited issues such as property setbacks. The projects would require no public hearing or notices to people who own land adjoining properties that would host wind turbines. Other state, county and local boards would be excluded from reviewing the projects.

“It suppresses our ability to do things,” said Chuck Chiarello, Buena Vista Township’s mayor and president of the League of Municipalities. “The problem is when you circumvent all levels of authority, everybody else who has had to follow all the rules that were in place ask why is there special treatment just for this type of project.”

State Sen. Robert Smith and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, both D-Middlesex, Somerset, sponsored the bills in their respective houses regarding wind turbine construction on preserved farmland. Both legislators said they are aware of opposition to the bills and are willing to discuss how they could be changed.

“There are some issues,” Smith said. “It’s a little broad. We’re going to fix the problems. People should not get nervous.”

He called arguments that the bills would circumvent the intent of the state farmland preservation program a “legitimate issue.”

Chivukula, a longtime proponent of green-energy projects, said farms in areas with significant wind present the best places for wind turbine development. The space occupied by the wind turbines would be negligible and still allow plenty of acres for farming, he said.

Regarding his bill, Chivukula said, “It’s not perfect, but we have to start somewhere.”

Smith’s bill is scheduled to undergo a hearing today before the state Senate Environment and Energy Committee that he chairs. Chivukula’s bill was approved by his Assembly Telecommunications Committee on May 19. That bill is scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Housing and Local Government Committee, although a date for that hearing has not been set.

Currently, state law requires approval of alternative energy systems on preserved farmland by the state Agriculture Development Committee. The SADC must still develop the appropriate rules and regulations to implement the new law but has indicated those rules will impose a 2 megawatt cap on renewable energy production on preserved farmland.

The SADC in September told Delsea Energy that Delsea’s proposal for the projects in Cumberland and Salem counties would exceed the 2 megawatt maximum. That blocks the projects from being developed for now.

The bills proposed by Smith and Chivukula would remove the distinction between preserved and unpreserved farmland. The bills would allow one wind turbine for every 33 acres of farmland, something that Abene said is an industry standard.

During testimony before the Assembly Telecommunications Committee on May 19, Delsea Energy business development manager Steve Volkert said the bill “creates a clear path for wind projects that are compatible with continuing farming and protecting neighboring landowners.” He said municipalities will get new ratables and the project will create hundreds of construction jobs.

In other testimony, Bradley Campbell, president of Trenton-based Swan Creek Energy and a former state Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, said the proposed legislation would significantly limit project reviews by the SADC.

“(SADC) has been, really, a block rather than a funnel for projects,” said Campbell, who is a consultant for Delsea Energy.

In written committee testimony, Fisher argued the bill would jeopardize farmland preservation.

“The (agriculture) department is concerned that this bill would seriously undermine the farmland preservation program, its efforts to permanently protect farmland to sustain a strong agricultural industry and public support for the program,” Fisher’s testimony reads.

He said current law allows farms to generate enough wind energy to power their agricultural operations and to reduce their farm’s energy costs. Kline, who owns Happy Valley Berry Farm in Stow Creek Township, Cumberland County, said allowing wind turbines to generate more energy than what a farmer needs effectively turns those farms into commercial energy-generating facilities.

“They’re not farms,” Kline said. “I’m all for sustainable energy, but there’s a limit.”

Blake said the lust for renewable energy projects in recent years could put pressure on farmers to host more wind-turbine — and eventually solar — projects.

“It’s like nothing we’ve seen before,” Blake said. “We’re seeing more applications now for wind and solar generation than we did for housing, even at the height of the building boom in southern New Jersey.”

Griscom said farmers in South Jersey are getting paid less per acre for farmland preservation than their counterparts elsewhere in the state. The money the farmers get goes quickly, she said.

“What these people don’t realize is … a lot of that money was gone before they even saw the check, because that is what kept them afloat,” she said. “Basically, it went right back into the farm.”

Griscom said the cost of fuel, feed and other farm necessities continues to increase. The nursery operation that uses part of her farm spends about $4,000 in a 24-hour span to irrigate about 100 acres, she said.

She said she doubts there would be opposition to the proposed bills if they were being considered in other states.

“I am so frustrated with the shortsighted people that I can’t stand it,” she said. “If we were anyplace but New Jersey, we wouldn’t have this.”

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197