MARMORA – A retirement project that has caused Mike Halpern to have more than a few headaches came one step closer to fruition after a unanimous vote by members of the county’s Agriculture Development Board went in favor of the latest version of his plan to transform a former Christmas tree farm, situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Marmora, into an operational winery.
The vote to approve Halpern’s Site Specific Agricultural Management Plan came following a lengthy and contentious hearing Feb. 27 at the Cape May County Administration Building.
Halpern and his wife gained the board’s approval to transform their Marmora vineyard, which they now maintain, into a functional and, they hope, profitable winery.
In this iteration of the proposal, Halpern dropped plans for an 80-seat tasting room, which would have occupied the existing pole barn. Instead, that facility will be used for production. Under the latest proposal, there would not be alcohol consumption, parties, events, or retail operations on the property.
“It was a relief,” Halpern said of the pared-down plan’s approval. “We know we’re not done, clearly. We’re fully expecting an appeal to the state.”
Halpern, a retired consultant, lives with his wife, Robin, and their dog in a house on the designated farmland off Bayaire Road. On either side of the Halperns’ home are two residential properties, one of which is rented as an Airbnb and the other owned by a friendly neighbor.
However, it’s their ambition for their sprawling backyard that has drawn the ire of the vocal majority of others in the neighborhood.
Not in My Backyard!
The idea for a winery has long been vehemently opposed by that coalition of neighbors, who lawyered up to stop Halpern’s plan.
Because of the land’s designation as a commercial farm and a preserved farm, Upper Township’s Planning and Zoning boards had no jurisdiction over the proposal, so the township, too, sought counsel to try to persuade the agriculture board to put conditions on the farm so it conforms with local zoning ordinances.
The crux of the jurisdiction and use issue has to do with the way the land is designated. Because the farm is over 5 acres, a figure the neighbors have disputed unsuccessfully at prior hearings, it is a commercial farm, which qualifies the farm owner for protections under New Jersey’s Right to Farm Act.
That act brings the site plan under the jurisdiction of the county agriculture board, and a winery is an allowed use of farmland in New Jersey. The land’s standing as a preserved farm prevents it from becoming anything other than farmland in the future.
“This is a fully preserved farm. There’s nothing else that could be done to it. You’ve seen these other farms that have been sold and turned into subdivisions or that sort of thing. That can never happen here. That’s why we’re availing ourselves of that Right to Farm Act process, to come up with an economically viable way to keep farming this land, because there’s nothing else we can do with it,” Colin Bell, an attorney for Halpern, said in an interview with the Herald after the meeting.
Halpern suggested neighbors consider the alternative possibilities, like a marijuana or pig farm, that might leave his opposition thinking that wine isn’t such a bad idea.
Neither side has shown any interest in walking away from the dispute. Halpern’s concessions, mainly to take consumption out of the equation, did not stop a parade of neighbors from marching to the public comment microphone to voice their objections.
Chemicals and Hazmat Suits
Rae Jaffe, one nearby resident, submitted a photograph into evidence of Halpern driving a tractor wearing a full hazmat suit, something she said raised concerns about the safety of the chemicals he was introducing.
Complaints were made by neighbors to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Halpern testified the department investigated him but found that he follows their regulations on pesticide and fertilizer use. He showed the Herald a detailed log he keeps of chemical types and application dates.
“His wife can be seen outside of the tractor wearing a respirator while she often watches him. Although Mr. Halpern claims that what he is spraying is permissible by law, we question the safety of his application method, regarding the close proximity to the neighbors and the fact that he takes all these precautions to protect himself while applying these chemicals,” Jaffe said to the board.
Halpern said he wears the hazmat suit because of his proximity to the chemical application and because it is what is advised on the product labels. He understands, however, the optics of that aren’t great on a vineyard that sits just steps from children’s backyard swing sets.
He said he has made investments in advanced equipment, which concentrates pesticide and fertilizer applications and reduces the volume of chemicals used to achieve the desired effect.
Halpern told the board he stopped spraying recently in some areas when he discovered monarch butterflies on the property. He said responsible stewardship of the land is something he absolutely takes seriously.
Buffers and Juice
Andrew Shawl, another neighbor, told the board that they should consider requiring a natural buffer, consistent with the township’s land use regulations between zones with different allowed uses. Shawl also voiced concerns about noise levels, odors, and air pollution.
He asked the board to consider implementing conditions to address those concerns and told the board he worried that Halpern could bring grapes or juice in from other properties to be bottled on the Upper Township farm.
“My guess is that there wouldn’t be any kind of limit on how many gallons he could run through in his bottling operation, or how they would be delivered, or if they would have to be grown on the site. That’s a concern for a commercial use next to a residential property,” Shawl said to the board. “I’m not against farmers. I’m not against farms. This is a commercial operation here, and I would ask you to please be considerate of the residents in the neighborhood.”
Upper Township Wants a Say
Frank Corrado, a lawyer hired by Upper Township to represent the municipality’s interests regarding the proposal, said during the meeting he understands the township board has no say in the matter.
“The Right to Farm Act has been held by the state Supreme Court to preempt local zoning,” Corrado said.
He did, however, ask the board to consider some of the variance relief that would be required if the application were before the township land use boards.
Corrado asked the agriculture board to impose conditions if they were to grant an approval, to which the applicant was mostly amenable. Those conditions included adding fencing, prohibiting tractor trailers from entering the property, agreeing to restrict wine-making operations to township-regulated business hours, ensuring any equipment stored outdoors near the property line is shorter than the 6-foot fence, putting it out of neighbors’ site lines, and clarifying measurements on the site plan.
“This application should be approved in a way that protects the surrounding residential neighborhood,” Corrado told the board. “We certainly believe this new proposal is an improvement over the previous proposal. It is a farm … but it’s located in the middle of a residential district.The township wants to make sure, to the extent possible, that the effect of this new proposal on the surrounding neighborhood is minimal.That’s where the township is coming from.”
What About an Appeal?
Corrado said after the hearing that he could not comment on if his client had any plans to appeal.
Richard M. King Jr., the attorney representing the neighbors, did not return a phone call from the Herald after the meeting to clarify his clients’ plan regarding an appeal.
An appeal could be brought before the State Agricultural Development Committee or a judge in the state Office of Administrative Law, Halpern’s lawyer said.
One of the findings of fact that could be ripe for appeal is the size of the land. To qualify as a commercial farm and for protection under the Right to Farm Act, the farmland must be greater than 5 acres. Halpern’s farm is just barely over the threshold at 5.28 acres.
Security Systems and Death Threats
Halpern, who also owns a winery in Cumberland County, said in an interview with the Herald that the disagreements with his Cape May County neighbors have been, at times, nasty, with some having said they want to run him out of town.
He said he has feared for his and his wife’s safety and even left the agriculture board meeting using a back exit. During the hearing, he said he has received death threats since moving to the property.
Things have gotten so contentious that Halpern felt the need to install a state-of-the-art industrial security system on the property. He said every square inch of the 5-acre farm is under video surveillance.
At the meeting, Halpern testified he has made a half dozen complaints to state police, since moving into the neighborhood, about harassment.
While public comments, including testimony presented by the attorneys for the neighbors and the township, were mostly against the proposed use, things during the meeting stayed largely civil. Still, there appeared to be an attitude of distrust and, in some cases, disdain toward the applicant.
What’s He Really Planning?
As Halpern testified for the board, neighbors in the gallery jeered, especially upon any mention of terms like “for now” or “at this point.” Sometimes, the jeering bordered on heckling, with some neighbors doubting this is Halpern’s endgame.
Although any further use of the property would require future approvals, Halpern said after the meeting he wants to keep his options open.
“This is America. Why do I have to commit to limiting my ability to run a business,” Halpern said in an interview. “The endgame is to run a profitable business … They don’t have to trust me. I don’t care.”
Halpern said one term that neighbors have thrown his way as an insult, he takes as a compliment.
“They’ve said a number of times, ‘you’re a capitalist,’” Halpern recalled. “I was touched.”
The Board Weighs In
When it came time for the board to vote, Halpern received unanimous support.
“He came in on a preserved farm, and he’s done everything he’s supposed to do,” said board member Sue Ann Wheeler.
“He practically meets the definition of (approved agriculture) work on a preserved farm in the Right to Farm Act,” board Chairman Matthew P. Stiles agreed.
“I have a lot of compassion for the neighbors, but as one of the commenters out of the audience today said, your issue is with the township that made the approval for a farm in the first place,” James P. Hand, another board member said. “The applicant has gone out of their way to bend over backwards to accommodate you as much as they can.”
Alfred Natali, another board member who has experience operating a winery, agreed.
“I would be hard-pressed to think of what else could be done with this land, given that it’s a preserved farm,” Natali said. “The state requires a vineyard as a condition to obtain a license. Without this farm, he couldn’t have a winery, so I’m voting yes.”
An Olive Branch?
According to numbers Halpern ran, based on a Cornell University study, he plans to harvest nine tons of grapes a maximum of four times per year, which he said would yield 1,350 gallons of wine, or 6,750 bottles.
However, he doubts he and his neighbors will ever be together at the same table drinking a bottle of it.
“Never,” Halpern said. “At some point,when you’re negotiating, you have to realize there is no rational way through this. They just want me gone. And they’ve said it.”
Thoughts? Questions? Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at email@example.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.