The Magazine

This Land Is Whose Land?

In which Piscataway seizes the Halper family farm.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By MATT LABASH
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The farm has been in the family since 1922 and until the city officially took ownership, in 2004, was co-owned by numerous Halper aunts and cousins, most of whom live elsewhere. Mark Halper still ran a mulch business on the land, and his cousin Gary oversaw a horse farm on another corner, making ends meet by giving pony rides to children. But Larry Halper (Mark's twin brother) and his wife Clara still worked and lived on the land, though they owned only a one-twelfth interest in the total family acreage. Even though everyone was getting bounced, it was their plight and property that attracted Clements.

The township has made feints at taking the Halper property for decades. In 1975, it actually did force the Halpers to sell 25 acres, which Piscataway added to an adjoining park. But the current festivities got underway in earnest in 1998. Around that time, the city purportedly grew nervous that some of its last privately owned green space might fall into the hands of ghastly developers, the kind that are regularly found in bed with the local politicians, making New Jersey a notorious "pay to play" state. Take a ride around the perimeter of the Halper farm, and such concerns don't seem to have plagued city planner consciences in the past, what with all the quaint mom 'n' pop operations like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Hollywood Tans that blanket the town like bad wall-to-wall carpeting.

From the look of things, plenty of people are making hefty profits selling Piscataway real estate off to the highest bidder. But to the city's thinking, the Halpers shouldn't be among them. They only worked the farm for nearly a century, why should they make money off it? Never mind that they'd received unsolicited offers for their land for decades and managed not to sell. Piscataway officials were coming after their property anyway, vowing to maintain it as "open space." An incredulous Clements asks what could be "more 'open space' than a farm?"

Considering that a farmer's land is his livelihood when he's working, and often his retirement fund when he's not, the Halpers didn't take the city's assaults lying down. But as more court battles unfolded than even the lawyers can keep track of, the family's choices boiled down to the following: (a) become tenant farmers under the state's Farmland Preservation Program, permitted to stay on their land but forced to sell the development rights to the government, (b) sell to the government now, even if it's offering a fraction of what developers would pay, (c) give up the property through condemnation and take whatever the township or courts give them, and (d) stay onboard the sinking ship and make lots of noise as it goes down. Larry and Clara Halper chose (d).

Over the years, the Halpers have claimed they've been subjected to all sorts of harassment, from Larry getting charged with animal cruelty for allegedly not providing veterinary care to two horses, to their daughter being cited for jaywalking in a Shop-Rite parking lot, to cops showing up on their property and beaming lights in their window. The Halpers fight back. Clara once filed a complaint against a town councilman who she said manhandled her when she was trying to videotape one of their meetings. She also ran for mayor as an independent to bring visibility to their plight, garnering a third of the votes of Democratic mayor Brian Wahler, who has helped lead the charge against them.

But petty tit-for-tat aside, the case smelled fishy from the beginning. New Jersey, it should be remembered, is a state so corrupt that over 200 of its officials have been indicted since 2002. The New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice has a public corruption hotline, and during a write-in contest for a new tourism slogan, one of the finalists was "New Jersey: Most of our elected officials have not been indicted."

In this climate, the plot thickened in the Halper case with the involvement of one David D'Amiano, a Democratic fundraiser and friend of then-governor Jim McGreevey. He is currently serving two years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of mail fraud. The original 11-count indictment against him included bribery and extortion. The victim of his alleged extortion was the Halper family, until Larry's brother Mark wore a wire on behalf of the feds.

When the county initially offered the family a paltry $3 million to join the Farmland Preservation Program (private developers had offered close to $14 million for the land), D'Amiano--a middle man with no official connection or title--got involved, telling Mark that for direct cash payments to him and donations to the Democratic State Committee, he could help the Halpers preserve their farm, or at least get them a better deal.