New Jersey will administer a $15 million program to identify and demolish unsafe Hurricane Sandy-damaged structures.

The work, funded through Community Development Block Grant disaster recovery money, will be done to alleviate blight and address public health threats, Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan wrote in an email.

The program will be carried out in the nine most storm-impacted counties, where unsafe structures will be demolished, debris will be removed, and any other demolition-related activities will be conducted, Ryan said.

About 20 communities affected by Hurricane Sandy have been identified along the shore to participate in the program's initial phase, Ryan said.

To date, the DCA has received preliminary lists of unsafe structures from 14 towns: Little Egg Harbor Township, Stafford Township, Brick Township, Eagleswood Township, Keansburg, Lavallette, Point Pleasant Beach, Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights, Seaside Park, Spring Lake Heights, Toms River, Tuckerton and Union Beach.

“We are gathering data on unsafe, Sandy-impacted homes in those communities most affected by the storm in an effort to help local governments address the safety issue,” Ryan said, who added the structures are defined as any building that is unsound, unsafe or in a state of disrepair to the extent that they are uninhabitable due to Sandy.

The list submitted by Little Egg Harbor Township included about 60 unsafe, Sandy-damaged structures, Ryan said. Last month, Little Egg Harbor Assistant Township Administrator Mike Fromosky said at least three homes in the Mystic Island section had been identified as potential demolitions.

Since the hurricane struck in October 2012, Little Egg Harbor officials have said about 5,000 township homes were substantially damaged by Sandy.

Township attorney Richard Kitrick, chairman of the Little Egg Harbor Hurricane Sandy Task Force, said the state’s plans could be a positive for the town to move forward.

Kitrick said if his two options are vacant lots with underwater mortgages or dilapidated, abandoned homes with underwater mortgages, he would choose the former.

“But the best thing is to sell those properties that are underwater. The banks should foreclose on these properties and sell them or work with the owners to short sale the homes. If that doesn’t work, the next best alternative is to have a vacant lot,” Kitrick said.

State Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, Atlantic, Burlington, said the DCA’s program will breathe new life into storm-damaged communities including Little Egg Harbor.

The rebuilding and recovery process is much more about restoring the community than restoring the tax base, Rumpf said.

Zoning in areas such as the Mystic Island section remains suitable for reconstruction on vacant lots once abandoned homes are demolished, he said. Homes that are sitting abandoned and in foreclosure can remain untouched because of the length of time it takes for banks to take action, he said.

“If the homes have been substantially damaged and sitting there for over a year since the storm in moldy conditions, they present a public health hazard. With programs like this from the DCA, neighborhoods can become whole again when attention is finally paid to those homes,” he said.

Stafford Township Administrator Jim Moran said that while the municipality received a directive from DCA to submit a list of abandoned homes, it is difficult to say definitively that properties are abandoned without a physical inspection of the property.

Moran said township Construction Official Bob Gaestel is preparing a list for DCA after receiving the request.

“Our discussion ... was how do we know that the property is abandoned? Just because Jim Moran says it’s an unsafe structure and abandoned does not give Jim Moran the power to go in and tear a home down,” Moran said.

The township tax collection rate, at 99 percent, remains high since Hurricane Sandy, so someone is paying taxes on homes that could appear to be abandoned, he said.

About 80 percent of the homes in the Beach Haven West section of the township are not lived in for 10 months of the year because they are second homes, he said.

“And then, let’s face it, many homeowners whose properties were damaged are still maneuvering through the insurance process, so that makes it even more difficult to correctly identify any abandoned properties,” he said.

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