One of the problems of a warming planet is glacial, the melting of ice that contributes to rising sea levels and flooding. The flight from that flooding at the Jersey Shore hasn’t even managed the other meaning of glacial — extremely slow.
There are many reasons for that, some of them subjective. People love to live near the ocean and back bays. They consider how much they’ve suffered so far from storms and flooding, and make a rough estimate of what they’ll experience going forward. They may have a bias in favor of doing nothing, in the absence of certainty on the magnitude and timing of future problems.
The most compelling reasons to retreat from flood-prone locations would be economic. A house, whether a primary or second home, is a big investment. But though an increase in flooding and storm damage is having some effect on the housing market and government regulation, it isn’t close to getting people to leave.
New Jersey has a Blue Acres program to buy out people whose properties are repeatedly flooded. The state has bought almost 650 homes, demolished them and barred housing from the land (as opposed to Green Acres, which buys land for preservation and recreation). But most of these repeat-flood-claim properties are along rivers in North Jersey, where the water is more a nuisance than an attraction, and property prices are correspondingly lower.
In the post-Superstorm Sandy era, the state Department of Environmental Protection has sought a Blue Acres beachhead along the ocean and back bays. The Lakes Bay area of Pleasantville looked promising and the program in September found 25 residents there eligible for buyouts. The number accepting has been so small that the DEP recently would only describe it as “a few.”
Perhaps increasing property values are more convincing to homeowners near the ocean and bays. One of the first studies to look at shore real estate appreciation in this era of concern about global warming and rising seas estimated that Ocean City would have seen values increase $530 million more if it weren’t for such concerns. But during the same decade, city properties actually appreciated $3.8 billion, swamping worries about loss of home values at the shore.
Money also makes it unlikely that Blue Acres or any other government program will offer anything near fair value for barrier island properties anytime soon, if ever. With Ocean City’s ratable base alone at $11.8 billion, it’s hard to imagine a source of such funding that would be seen as fair by the majority who live inland.
Shore property owners may also be waiting to see what efforts will be made to provide relief from flooding before giving a thought to bailing out. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state DEP are expected in 2019 to complete a three-year, $3 million study of where the worst back-bay flooding occurs and what could be done to mitigate it.
And since New Jersey and the federal government have repeatedly provided substantial disaster aid to properties damaged by storm surges and winds, it’s not unreasonable that shore property owners would expect that to happen again if their optimism about the future is all wet.
Overall, economic factors still encourage development along the shores of America. That is why there is already more than $64 trillion worth of property at risk on the East Coast and Gulf Coast alone, and why the annual bill for storm-related damage keeps rising.
If change is to come to the shore property market — a big if — the first sign might be when the federal government quits subsidizing flood insurance and reduces disaster aid. Waterfront homeowners won’t be talked out of their properties, no matter how alarming the forecasts for an indeterminate future.