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State to handle farm complaint Bergen transfers case to avoid conflict of interest

Monday, May 25th, 2009 admin

By Walter Dawkins
The Record Staff writer

Old Tappan- Pesticide complaints against a farm owned by a borough councilman must be heard by the state’s Office of Administrative Law to avoid a conflict of interest, Bergen County’s Agriculture Development Board ruled Tuesday.

The owner of Stokes Farm, Borough Councilman Ronald Binaghi Jr. had requested that the board issue a decision on the complaint by neighbors James and Wilda Lagrosa, as well as a request by the borough planning board for site approval on 10 greenhouses.

However, the Agriculture Development Board passed the case to the Office of Administrative Law to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“Mr. Binaghi sits on the Bergen County Agriculture Development Board” said ADB member Kevin Funabashi. “It’s a tight knit group, and we wanted to make sure that it was a fair playing field”.

The Lagrosas’ lawyer, Alan Ashkinaze, welcomed the decision.

“There would be doubts about the integrity of the process,” Ashkinaze said. “And there would always be questions of whether Mr. Binaghi used his position to influence the decision making.”

The Lagrosas have complained for years that greenhouse ventilating fans on the 40 acre farm blow contaminants directly onto their property.

Borough Construction Official Peter Abballe last month also sent a letter to Binaghi explaining that 10 of the property’s greenhouses originally constructed as temporary are actually permanent structures that “require a formal application to the Planning Board for site plan approval”.

Binaghi, in turn, wrote a March 21 letter to the County

Agriculture Development Board requesting assistance in resolving both of these issues.

In the letter, Binaghi called the pesticide complaints unfounded. Tests in 1995 by the state Department of Environmental Protection showed no pesticide residue on the fans or in the system’s air conditioner intake, he said.

Binaghi also noted that the Lagrosas had filed a lawsuit against him in 1994-95 but that “the case was dropped right before we were to appear in court”.

“This whole thing is a do-over and you don’t get to do that in the law”, said Binaghi’s lawyer, Alexander Carver. “They had every opportunity to bring their case before the court”.

Wilda Lagrosa said that they had run out of money to pay for the litigation.

On the site plan question, Binaghi cited state law that he contends exempts the greenhouses. The Right to Farm Act provides eligible farmers who operate responsibly with protection from restrictive municipal ordinances and public and private nuisance actions.

“The …issue is really just a matter of educating our borough about the Right to Farm Act and other exemptions that farms have in New Jersey”, Binaghi wrote.

Ashkinaze, however, argued that the law doesn’t apply.

“The operations of the Stokes farm has failed to conform to proper agricultural management practices,” Ashkinaze said. “The Binaghis have been improperly ventilating their greenhouses”.

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