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The New York Times

Farmer Fights to Keep His Piece of Earth

By Tina Traster

May 1, 1994 -- WILLIAM PULDA beckoned a visitor to come in from a soaking spring rain. His two small dogs, lapping at his feet, followed him into a dining room cluttered with desk lamps, a worn sideboard filled with owl statues, several clocks and a brass American bald eagle spanning a wall. The sweet smell of smoke from his 1920's cast-iron stove seeped into the room.

Pulling up a chair, Mr. Pulda lowered a hanging light over a clothed wooden table, as if to illuminate his thoughts. "I feel like it's over," said Mr. Pulda, a retired 72-year-old farmer, alluding to the controversy that has thrown him into a public spotlight in North Brunswick Township and beyond.

"I told them from the beginning the land was not for sale," he said, referring to his 67-acre farm, where he has lived all his life.

Mr. Pulda's situation is not unique. In cities and towns throughout the state, local governments are scrambling to salvage the last vestiges of open space, which commonly is farmland.

But Mr. Pulda is angry because even though he had no desire to sell his farm, the Mayor and his administration proceeded with a plan to obtain a state loan to buy the land to convert it into a park. Township officials did not, however, threaten the use of eminent domain to take Mr. Pulda's land, off Old Georges Road near Route 123, where soybeans and sweet corn are grown by a farmer leasing a portion of the Pulda property.

Vehement public support mounted when the issue gained attention in early March, and Mayor Paul J. Matacera briskly adopted a more tacit approach to try to persuade Mr. Pulda to consider some form of sale. The Mayor maintains that negotiations are ensuing, but it may be too late. Mr. Pulda said he was embittered and distrustful toward local officials and did not want to strike a deal.

Further, Mr. Pulda said he was considering placing his land in a state-sponsored permanent preservation program that requires the land to remain in agriculture forever. The program requires approval and financial commitment from North Brunswick.

In October 1991, the township administration obtained a $2.5 million loan from the state's Green Acres Program to acquire land for recreation in order to create sports fields. Last January, the Green Acres Program agreed to increase the loan, pending the outcome of a current land appraisal. Mayor Matacera said the loan was sought to insure that Mr. Pulda's farm -- one of two large tracts of undeveloped land in the township -- would be preserved for open space.

In the 1991 loan application, township officials stated that "active" negotiations were continuing and that the owner was considering a "25 percent donation of his land."

Mr. Pulda, in a recent statement issued through his lawyer, said he had no interest in negotiating and had never considered donating any portion of the land.

Acquiring Mr. Pulda's land appeared to be the township's best chance of creating a verdant respite. The property is adjacent to a 146-acre wooded park along Farrington Lake, and it is next to Little League fields and the school board office.

In 1987, township officials in conjunction with a parks and recreation committee, a citizens' group, studied the densely developed suburban community's inventory for future parkland. In the 12-square-mile township in Middlesex County, where the population rose 40 percent to more than 31,000 people in the last decade, open space has given way to housing developments and commercial strip centers.
 
Need for Recreational Sites

The need for playing fields and recreational sites is dire, township officials say. William Hartko, former chairman of the citizens' group that worked to push for open space, said the National Recreation and Park Association recommends eight acres of open space per 1,000 citizens.

North Brunswick falls below the standard. On the basis of the 1990 census, the township has 4.3 acres per resident, or about 50 percent less open space than what is recommended, and according to a study the administration commissioned in 1987, the population was expected to grow to nearly 37,000 by 1995.

"If that growth is real," Mr. Hartko said, "then the township needs to acquire 294 acres to fall in line with nationally recommended standards for open space."

Many in North Brunswick admit a deficit of open space, but they do not condone the acquisition of a man's property against his will. During a township Planning Board meeting in early March, residents of North Brunswick and surrounding communities and farming advocates statewide threw their support behind Mr. Pulda. Their clamorous objections to a coerced sale or possible condemnation found expression in letters to local newspapers, at town meetings and on a 1,000-name petition.
 
50 Acres Rented

No one understood Mr. Pulda's situation more than Edwin Otken, 24, a farmer who tills his family's 105-acre farm along Route 130 and rents 50 acres from Mr. Pulda. Mr. Otken, the only active farmer in the township, sells local produce at a fresh fruit and vegetable stand from April through November.

Mr. Otken, who some accused of acting out of self-interest because of his financial yield from the Pulda farm, said he had brought the fight into the public arena because the township couldn't understand what the farm meant to Mr. Pulda.

"You live here all your life, and your last request can't be honored?" Mr. Otken said.

Peter Furey, executive director of New Jersey Farm Bureau, sent a letter to Green Acres requesting that the program rescind the loan because Mr. Pulda is an unwilling seller. Mr. Furey said it was not unusual for a township to want to acquire farmland, but he said he had not seen an attempt "as blatant as North Brunswick's."

"What came out from people was the classic American sentiment of justice and freedom," Mr. Furey said. "What came out is an affinity for farming and the rustic days of yore."

In response to the controversy, Assemblywoman Joanna Gregory-Scocchi, a North Brunswick resident, has introduced a bill that would prohibit state Green Acres funds from being used to acquire farmland against a landowner's will.
 
'A Mixed-Up Mess'

Township leaders concede that they blundered. "The whole thing got to be a mixed-up mess," said Gus Kuhlman, chairman of the Planning Board. "The township didn't follow through with conversations it started two years ago with Pulda. It just went ahead and filled out forms without his consent."

Dr. Sal Liguori, the Council president, said, "If I had to do it all over again, I would make sure we have a contract to purchase property before moving forward." He said he thought the administration was moving forward to acquire Green Acres funds in order to take advantage of a low-interest loan. "But ultimately, the decision to sell or not to sell was Pulda's," he added.

Mayor Matacera would not agree to be interviewed for this article.

Mr. Pulda said he told the Mayor he had no interest in selling his land when the Mayor visited him in 1989. Mr. Pulda opposed accepting an offer of an undisclosed sum of money plus life rights to about a 10-acre portion of his farm.
 
No Plans to Negotiate

When Mr. Pulda issued a statement through his lawyer that said he had no plans to negotiate, Mr. Matacera said the township would not condemn Mr. Pulda's land and would assist him if he sought to enlist in a preservation program.

Mr. Pulda said he might apply for the permanent preservation program. "I want to live here the rest of my life and not be bothered," he said. "I don't want to be a tenant on the township's ground. I want to be my own boss on my own land, to have my name on the deed."

There are two state-sponsored farmland preservation programs. Farmers who have at least 10 acres of actively tilled land can apply for an eight-year preservation plan, under which they are eligible for state soil and water conservation grants. The program, which requires municipal approval, assures a farmer freedom from municipal nuisance laws and eminent domain.

To preserve a farm forever, a landowner can apply to the Easement-Purchase Program, in which the county buys the development rights -- for the total of the land minus farm value -- from the landowner. The state contributes about 60 percent of the cost of the development rights, and the county and municipality add 20 percent each.

If Mr. Pulda wants to enlist the farm in the permanent program, the township will have to forgo its plans for a park.

Over the last two decades, Middlesex County has lost one-third of its active farmland. About 22,000 acres, or 11 percent, of the county's total acreage is under cultivation.

Mr. Pulda, who was one of seven children to grow up in the two-story weathered house on the farm, inherited the homestead in August 1987. He has never married. His world begins and ends at the lines that demarcate his land.

"When you live and work on something for 72 years," he said, "it's imbedded in you."

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