NJ to expand buyout of flood-prone properties
New Jersey’s program to buy flood-prone homes is being redesigned to include properties that are expected to flood in response to climate change as well as those that are already eligible for purchase by the state due to repeated floods in the past.
A new version of the Blue Acres program will add a proactive element to its existing policy that responds to events like Tropical Storm Ida by buying and demolishing flood-prone properties whose owners have voluntarily offered them for sale to the state.
Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette called the updated program “Blue Acres 3.0” because it is a progression from the first version which began in the years 1990 and the second which significantly expanded the program after Super Storm Sandy in 2012.
With the forecast of bigger storms, more precipitation, higher temperatures and rising seas due to climate change, it is time to anticipate these events with the program and make it part of the resilience strategy. state, LaTourette said.
“The program needs to be rethought,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News last week. “We are moving from a function of disaster response to one of climate resilience and preparedness. We are integrating it into our climate planning exercise and our technical support to all local governments in New Jersey.
Stuck in a “vicious cycle”
LaTourette said the current program is stuck in a “vicious cycle of damage-recovery-rebuild-repeat” that must be broken. As part of the planned overhaul, the state will still buy back properties that have seen historic flooding, LaTourette said, but it will add a more proactive approach that combines early buyouts with resilience measures like porous pavement or services. municipal stormwater – which would charge developers based on the amount of impermeable surface they create and use the proceeds to build green infrastructure like rain gardens.
Solutions could also include building “hard infrastructure” such as dykes and dykes in coastal areas; buyouts to create flood buffer zones on newly vacant land and “a setback against over-development that is not as environmentally sensitive as it could be,” LaTourette said.
Properties potentially eligible for buybacks in the new phase of the program will include those “that we know will be inundated” by storms or rising waters in the future, he explained.
LaTourette said he plans to roll out a pilot program for the new component in the coming months and wants to focus first on areas that Ida says are particularly vulnerable to “river” flooding along the valleys. river. The pilot will use some of the money from corporate tax, which already funds Blue Acres, and allocated a total of $ 4.3 million in fiscal year 2022, which ends in June of the next year.
Doug O’Malley, director of the nonprofit Environment New Jersey, said the Blue Acres redesign is an appropriate response to the growing climate crisis.
Facing a “wetter and more flooded future”
“New Jersey is going to have a wetter, more flooded future and making Blue Acres proactive reflects that reality,” he said. “The question will be how many properties the state can buy, how much it will ultimately cost, and how many willing sellers there will be. Hurricane Ida and the storms we have experienced this summer are a glimpse of our extreme weather future. “
Proponents of tougher resilience measures have long accused Blue Acres of being far too small to adequately cope with the massive impact of climate change. Whether the program meets the challenge in the future will depend on whether other parts of the resilience program mean that certain properties can be protected from flooding, LaTourette said.
“The political question is how you build this network together; how you encourage people to invest in stormwater management to the extent that they are not currently doing it; how you encourage developers to take a longer view, ”he said.
Since 2013, the program has demolished 705 properties; Closed purchases on 770 and 830 families accepted buyout offers, according to DEP data in mid-September.
Since Ida struck on September 1, public interest in state buyouts has been “very strong,” LaTourette said, and has focused in areas such as the Rahway River Valley which were hit so hard by the floods. “People want to go out, they are tired of their lives and their belongings and of the people they like to be taken away,” he said.
The new demand for buybacks indicates that more people understand the nature of the climate challenge and are more supportive of the state’s response, LaTourette said. “The fact that people have raised their hands to take an interest in the Blue Acres program – that I think is a sign that we are going to break the cycle. It is the demonstration of a greater recognition of our climatic realities.
No immediate results
But even with the redesigned program, he warned that those seeking buybacks should not expect immediate results as federal assistance will depend on an ongoing assessment of the damage to Ida by the Federal Agency for the Management of Human Rights. emergencies, and because state money – which will pay for the new proactive part of Blue Acres – is still limited by funding allowed by lawmakers.
“We have to be careful not to sow the impression among the public who have been hit hard by Ida that a buyout of their damaged property is somehow immediate as the process takes time,” said LaTourette.
“It will necessarily take several months before a buyout occurs in response to Ida. It’s not because people are slow. This is because there are several steps that need to be aligned between the federal declaration and the assessment, and a congressional funding bill that appropriates federal money to which state money. can serve as a counterpart. Then we have to negotiate with the communities on the buybacks, then the demolition, then the management of the land left vacant.
When a Blue Acres purchase ends, the homes are demolished and the land they stand on is converted to open space which becomes a buffer zone for future flooding.
When the federal disaster relief funds arrive, they will unlock matching funds from the state and the two sources will jointly pay for any Ida-related buyouts or repairs, LaTourette said. Any future expansion of the new proactive part of Blue Acres would have to be decided by the Legislature, he said.
“If we want Blue Acres to have the money it needs to have a profound impact, it needs more money from the state, but we can still make an impact with what we have,” a- he declared. “If the legislature wants to see it expand even further, we will need more funding.”
Voluntary or compulsory?
LaTourette has previously denied that the state is considering a possible need for mandatory buyouts, but some environmentalists argue the state may one day require purchases in the most vulnerable communities.
“Blue Acres is a voluntary program now, but to be truly effective in the future, mandatory purchases may be necessary,” said O’Malley of Environment New Jersey. “We will ultimately need a much more solidly funded Blue Acres program, strict restrictions on new developments in floodplains, and tremendous pressure on climate change mitigation policies.”
The success of the redesigned program will depend in part on the cooperation of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities, which have been warned by DEP that they will have to shoulder much of the responsibility for climate change preparedness. Cities are now required by state law to include a climate vulnerability assessment when they update their master plans every 10 years.
But LaTourette said he was unaware that a city had conducted a climate vulnerability assessment yet. Likewise, none have yet created a stormwater service following the adoption of a law in 2019 allowing them to do so or adopted a new DEP “toolbox” to help them integrate climate change. in regional planning policy.
He warned that cities are leaving themselves more vulnerable to the next monster storm than they would be if they took advantage of available aid.
“If the Corps is expected to intervene, or the DEP to intervene, people will continue to be surprised by the Idas,” he said. “We need to promote coordinated governance, and that’s part of our climate resilience strategy. “