Some public officials say the best solution to address coastal flooding in New Jersey is simply surrendering to the rising tide.
Lawmakers are proposing a $100 million ballot question to buy up low-lying properties through the state’s new Blue Acres program. A law enacted in January of 2012 allows counties and towns to use dedicated open-space money to buy flood-prone properties. Normally, this money has been used exclusively for open space, recreation, farmland or historic sites.
Now Assemblyman David W. Wolfe, R-Ocean, wants to put the $100 million bonding question to voters in November. He introduced a bill to that effect this month.
Already, lawmakers have earmarked more than $26 million this year for this purpose in towns including Linwood and Cape May. This is an all-or-nothing solution, which would not necessarily help holdouts who want to keep their homes or businesses where they are.
“There’s no doubt that in Sandy-impacted states you’ll see more of this,” said Tom Gilbert, regional director for The Trust for Public Land. He also represents a coalition of nonprofit groups in favor of open space called the Keep it Green Campaign.
Gilbert said many Green Acres purchases mitigate flooding by expanding open space. He said the state needs to prioritize funding for all open space, including Blue Acres.
“It’s a piece of the puzzle. There will be some instances where I think most people will agree that it makes more sense to buy a property out rather than rebuild it, especially in places that have suffered repeated flooding,” he said. “We know from flood maps and experience where these places are.”
The New Jersey Farm Bureau also supports Blue Acres funding as a corollary to its efforts to preserve farmland in the Garden State.
“The amount of money is guarded and cautious,” spokesman Peter Furey said. “They know something has to be done. These smaller initiatives could inform later investments.”
Furey said preserving farmland often provides the added benefit of flood protection, especially along waterways.
On Friday, Cape May Mayor Ed Mahaney, City Manager Bruce MacLeod and Solicitor Tony Monzo stood in a winter-yellow field the city plans to buy with $792,000 in Blue Acres grants, part of $1.5 million in state open space money the city has raised since 2011 to expand its only recreational park.
Before the housing-market crash in 2008, a developer had planned to build 24 condominiums there, Mahaney said.
The field is part of the long-shuttered and bank-owned Vance’s Bar on Lafayette Street. The former tavern sits behind Cape Island Creek, which sometimes inundates the land with several inches of floodwater during severe storms.
Once purchased, the bar will be demolished to expand and reconfigure the city and Board of Education’s 38-acre park and its baseball, basketball and soccer fields with new walking trails, a dog park and landscaping that will help the space double as an outdoor picnic pavilion for concerts.
As part of the project, JCP&L will finish the third stage of remediation of potential contamination at a former coal-gasification plant where the city’s dog park now sits, Mahaney said.
As part of the five-year project, the city will match the state grants dollar-for-dollar with open-space taxes it has collected over the years, Mahaney said.
Once a property is purchased through Blue Acres, it has limited construction potential. So while the city might be able to erect public bathrooms here, it would not be allowed to build a community center or other large building, Monzo said.
But even if voters approve $100 million for Blue Acres next year, the amount would represent a token effort at flood mitigation considering the state’s vast flood risks, Linwood Mayor Rick DePamphilis said.
“Where it would have the most effect is on the barrier islands. But if they’re talking about buying up land there, they’re going to need a lot more than $100 million,” he said. “I can’t see too many people wanting to get out.”
Cape May’s Mahaney said buying up flood-prone land is a good strategy under the right circumstances.
“It’s a start. I believe $100 million will allow some highly visible sites that could be reclaimed for some useful purpose to be acquired,” he said. “I was a little surprised when the program started that there weren’t more applications. But I figured it would take some time for municipalities to recognize the value of the program.”
State Sen. James Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he has not yet seen the bond proposal. But he agrees with the concept behind Blue Acres.
“Some of these areas in recent years have had five major floods in a 10-year cycle with major repairs and evacuations,” he said. “You can’t just keep rebuilding. The individual homeowner can’t expect the federal government or state to continually help with the problem. Conceptually, that makes no sense.”
Whelan, who lives in the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City, said his home sustained flood damage during Hurricane Sandy for the first time in 37 years. But he doubts many people in his neighborhood would want to leave.
“The reality is some people are inclined to stay. This is the price we pay for living on the water,” he said.
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