Young Organic Farmer Fighting Rebuke of Chatham Twp. Law

June 3rd, 2011

Green Village neighbors polarized on right of family to grow, sell local produce

Daily Record
by Aaron Morrison

CHATHAM TWP. — Twenty-four-year-old organic farmer Mike Bucuk isn’t tending the overgrown arugula at his family’s three-acre Green Village home.

Bucuk and his parents, Tom and Debbie, planted a vegetable garden with hopes to sell its bounty at the local farmer’s market. But doing so would mean the Bucuk’s home would qualify as a commercial farming operation, which violates Chatham Township law.

At issue is the commercial label, the family says. The Bucuks, 30-year Chatham residents who moved to their Green Village home in November, insist the word “commercial” overstates their plans.

“We’re not building a farm so large it needs a crop duster,” Tom Bucuk joked.

Word of their plans spawned a rebuke from some neighbors, who are concerned their small scale organic farm would be an intrusive nuisance.

Although Mayor Nicole Hagner and other township officials support adoption of a local Right to Farm Act that would allow farmers to bypass local zoning rules, the Bucuks have been ordered to halt all farming operations until action is taken.

“For me, it’s depressing,” said Mike Bucuk, who studied agricultural ecology at Rutgers University. “I just stay away from (the crops). We don’t weed anything, we don’t cultivate.”

Rows of ready-to-pick kale, butter lettuce and spinach run along a white hoop house on the Bucuks’ property. It’s more than they could eat on their own, which is good news for neighbors whom they allow to pick vegetables free of charge.

“Pray for me; I’m trying to farm in the Garden State,” reads a sign on the Bucuks’ kitchen refrigerator.

Bucuk and his family said they were blindsided by the resistance they encountered from residents in their Green Village neighborhood, one of which posted signs reading, “Say no to commercial farming,” throughout Chatham.

The signs were posted by Rich Templin, who also goes by Erich. He opposes the Bucuk’s attempt to run commercial enterprises in a residential zone.

“The ends don’t justify the means,” said Templin, a nine-year Chatham resident who lives two lots down and across the street from the Bucuks. “When people tell me farming is not invasive, I know they are not informed on the subject.”

Templin notified the township of the farming activity at the Bucuk home — construction of the hoop house, tilling and other farming related activities — and it was the first time officials had heard of it, he said.

“They (the Bucuks) probably should have reached out to their neighbors,” Templin said. “Before anybody was notified, a greenhouse appeared.”

Bucuk said his family didn’t seek a permit for the hoop house in their backyard because it is a portable, temporary structure and didn’t warrant review by a town planner.

The township didn’t agree. It issued the Bucuks a zoning violation in December for land disturbance.

After more complaints about activity on the Bucuks’ property, a second zoning violation was issued in March. That halted any disturbance of soil or other farming activities on the property until the township committee considers the right-to-farm ordinance.

Right-to-farm laws protect property owners from nuisance litigation, provided the owners adhere to accepted standards and restrictions.

Hagner acknowledged the township is not close to voting on such an ordinance that would untie the hands of the Bucuks and others like them.

“We’d like to allow people to do what the Bucuks are trying to do,” said Hagner who, with committee member William O’Connor and county agricultural experts, is working to draft the ordinance. “Can we make it work for Chatham? I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The township in 1999 outlawed commercial farming without a use variance.

The Bucuks said they would prefer not to apply for a variance if the township committee is willing to allow commercial farming. Bucuk enlisted the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, which developed a conservation plan for the Bucuks’ farming operation.

“We have no problem with being a commercial farm,” Mike Bucuk said. “We didn’t think the town would take issue with it because we are surrounded by farms.”

The Green Village area of Chatham Township was once known for its family farms. Today, most of the farming land is vacant or developed as residential. That’s how Templin believes Green Village should stay.

“Chatham is not a farming town anymore and it probably never will be,” Templin said.

Pat Collington, of the Chatham Township Environmental Commission, said she hopes the township adopts the Right to Farm ordinance. It would fit into the town’s participation in Sustainable Jersey, a statewide program that encourages towns to adopt green initiatives to improve quality of life.

“Recently, many Chathamites have become interested in gardening again, probably due in some degree to our participation in and certification by Sustainable Jersey,” Collington said.

Tom Bucuk said he and wife Debbie were open to creating a family farm in their backyard after seeing their son succeed in managing the family’s landscaping business, Green Path, which is based in Chatham.

“I fully believe that you follow your passion,” he said. “This is his. He plants this stuff with his eyes closed.”

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