Lawmakers pursue funding options for flood-prone properties

TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie’s desire to have the federal government provide some $250 million to purchase flood-prone properties and have willing residents relocate is a sign of how important the Blue Acres state program has become in recent years.

The state’s Blue Acres program – which deals with properties in river floodways – has been mentioned several times – before and after the massive devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy – as one that needs more funding to keep up with the demand.

Legislators and environmental groups have warned of the dwindling funds. The program is made possible as part of comprehensive open space preservation bond act voters approved several times in prior years, most recently in 2009 and 2007.

Blue Acres, which is voluntary, enables the state to purchase properties frequently prone to flooding  and turn them into passive recreation.

In addressing the fast-depleting account, legislators have called for either more bonding or for a new dedicated source of revenue via a tax.

For example, Sen. Bob Martin has sponsored legislation, S813,  that would take a pay as you go approach.  

His plan would establish – upon public approval of a constitutional amendment, SCR44 – a water usage fee of 40 cents per thousand gallons of water delivered to the consumer. Through this mechanism, some $150 million could be raised annually for open space projects, which includes Blue Acres.  

Others have proposed the traditional method of funding the state’s land preservation goals through more bond referendums.  Assembly Democrats have sponsored A2930, the “Blue Acres Floodplain Protection Bond Act of 2012.”

The bill would authorize the issuance of $100 million in state general obligation bonds, of which $85 million would be allocated for the acquisition of properties repeatedly prone to flooding through the state’s Blue Acres program and $15 million of which would be allocated as grants to fund home elevation. Under the bill, only single-family or two-family houses that are the homeowners’ primary residence would be eligible for the home elevation grants.

Christie has been receptive to the need to have Blue Acres funding available. On Jan. 29, he signed into law bill S2246/A3339, bipartisan legislation that called for $2.4 million from a 1995 bond to be used for Blue Acres. The day before, he signed bill S2248, which provides $12 million from the 2009 Blue Acres fund to acquire homes located in the Passaic River Basin.

The governor also signed bipartisan legislation, S3078, sponsored by Sens. Robert Gordon (D-39) of Fair Lawn and Christopher Bateman (R-16) of Neshanic Station, to enable municipalities to use their open space preservation funds for Blue Acres purposes. Prior to that law, the money could be use to preserve open land or for recreational purposes. The trust fund was retitled to include floodplain protection.

But the problem is there’s little to no money left for future property buyouts in areas prone to frequent flooding.

Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club  has repeatedly called on the Legislature and the administration to come up with a stable source of funding to support future preservation, and no more bonding.

He criticized the administration’s recent action plan on how it will spend the $1.83 billion Community Development Block Grant, because it does not include home buyout funds.

“This report does not call for better planning, dealing with sea level rise and climate change, buying out flood prone properties, or rebuilding natural systems. Instead we are concerned that it is going to let New Jersey make the mistakes of the past, maybe slightly elevated,” he said. “Not only is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome insanity, but even worse, it wastes taxpayer money and puts people in harm’s way.”

Larry Ragonese, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the department has been working with communities on possible buyouts. He said homeowners in many inland communities, such as Sayreville and Woodbridge, have expressed interest in the program.  He estimated that at this point, about 60 homes are interested.

“We prefer to get neighborhoods, contiguous properties so we could create floodplains,” he said.

There is $12 million in Blue Acres funding for the current year, he said. But like every year, FEMA kicks in millions more in federal funds to move forward with the home purchases, he said.

While this year is covered, next year could be a different story.

“The funding for next year is up in the air,” he said. “We’re at the end of the funding cycle.”

Tittel sees the Smith tax proposal as just that stable source that he believes is needed.

 “The most successful program in New Jersey, open space funding, is out of money. Unless we invest in open space like we invest in all other infrastructure, the state will suffer economically and environmentally,” he said in a statement.

“Without this funding there will be more pollution in our waterways costing us more money to treat that water and more flooding putting people and property at risk. Our three largest industries all depend on the clean water – tourism, pharmaceuticals, and food processing. By investing in open space we are investing in our future.”

In a telephone interview, Smith said of all the bills he’s sponsored to produce future preservation funds, he likes the water use fee bill the best. However, he said the perception of the fee may be a turnoff to some residents.

“The best part about it is there’s no debt,” he said. “But the downside is it will be interpreted as a tax.”  

He said the bill basically would mean a $32-a-year fee. That’s why Smith said it’s best to let the voters decide this issue. However, he said he can’t do it all alone. He would like the administration’s help by taking a stand.

“We need some leadership on this issue.”

Tittel said the voluntary nature of the program can hold up projects.

“One of the problems with Blue Acres it that it is voluntary so one house may be bought out, but another may not, stopping the removal of fill and flood storage in those areas. The state needs to find areas to create new flood storage opportunities along the river whether it is restoring floodplain or building flood storage areas in vacant lands along the river.”

The voluntary nature of the program is not likely to be changed anytime soon. Christie has said he’s against having the state decide which properties need to be condemned and where rebuilding can take place. He said he wants to leave it to the homeowner and not resort to eminent domain or condemnation.

Ragonese has also said that while getting several consecutive properties to agree to buyouts would be ideal, some buyouts are better than no buyouts if it means improved flood mitigation in a particular neighborhood.

“If you get 15 out of 20 homes, that’s fine.”

  Lawmakers pursue funding options for flood-prone properties