New Jersey Strong news – Trenton, NJ: Sierra NJ reports 3.11.2020.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the federal government are asking local officials nationwide to agree to use eminent domain to force people out of flood-prone homes. Governments that refuse may not receive federal money to combat climate change.  New Jersey is one of the states that has refused to agree to these demands.

“In New Jersey, we are seeing storm damage and flooding happen at an alarming rate along the shore and in flood prone areas. We have to take more aggressive action in order to protect people and properties from chronic flooding and storm surges. We cannot wait for decades for neighborhoods to get bought out, because while we wait the storms are going to get worse. We need to start looking at a mandatory program because the current program takes too long to keep people from harm’s way,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We agree with the Army Corps that we should look at using eminent domain in some of the most chronically flooded areas.”

To determine which houses get bought out, the Army Corps estimates how much damage a house will suffer in the next 50 years and compares that to the cost to buy and tear down the house, plus moving expenses for the owner. The price offered to the owner is not negotiable.

“The Sierra Club has been involved with Blue Acres since the program started in 1989, but it can take 20-30 years for these communities to be bought out. Many people choose to stay in these areas. These people are selfish because when their houses get damaged by the next storm, we still have to pay to rebuild them. Towns have to come in to fix roads and bridges and ratepayers have to pay for electric and gas infrastructure to be fixed. More importantly, they put first responders in harm’s way to rescue them during storms or floods,” said Tittel. “In the case of Hoffman Grove in Wayne, some homes were rebuilt four or five times before they were finally bought out. It is better to buy out an entire neighborhood so we can restore the floodplains and wetlands to help protect other communities as well.”

According to a recent report, New Jersey is listed in the top-ten fastest-warming states in the country, with warming trends strongest along the coast. A DEP report found that sea level in New Jersey could rise from 2000 levels by up to 2.6 feet by 2050 and up to 8.8 feet by 2100. The report also shows that New Jersey has already been disproportionately affected by climate change – sea level rise projections in New Jersey are more than two times the global average.

“New Jersey opposes the Army Corps plan, but we think that they’re wrong. The New Jersey program focuses on buying house by house instead of block by block or neighborhood by neighborhood. This takes much longer, because it takes the same amount of time to buy one house as it would to buy the entire community. We need a comprehensive approach that uses eminent domain in chronically flooded areas where people are refusing to sell. The Army Corps has given New Jersey $300 million for buyouts,” said Tittel. “Given sea level rise and climate change, we need to move forward quickly with buying out properties and making sure our communities are safe from storm surges.”

The Army Corps has stated that the use of eminent domain is necessary in order to guarantee to Congress that the funded buyouts will actually happen. They say that voluntary programs still leave a majority of houses exposed. According to a recent Zillow report,New Jersey is  number 1 when it comes to states with the most homes in a 10-year risk zone. NJ has 4,524 new homes in a 10-year risk zone, and is developing in these zones 2x faster than safer locations. 

“We need to expand Blue Acres and purchase many more homes to keep people safe. We also need to stop developing in risk zones. A recent Zillow report shows that we are top three in the nation for developing homes in flood-prone areas. DEP released a report projecting sea levels rising by 2.6 feet or more by 2050, and anywhere from 5.0 to 8.8 feet by 2100. This is alarming because our barrier islands are only 3 feet above sea levels. All the reports are pointing to extreme climate impacts, but we are still building in vulnerable areas,” said Jeff Tittel. “If we keep people in homes that get flooded regularly, it will create a disaster for New Jersey residents. The best way to protect people from harm is buying them out and protecting them from future storms.”

The Blue Acres program is one of the most successful state programs. The program allows buy outs of flood prone properties and helps to get people out of harm’s way. Blue Acres is important in acquiring properties, removing structures, and restoring floodplains to their natural state. Without it, we will see more flooding throughout the state. 

“New Jersey should be looking at using eminent domain as part of their toolkit to deal with flooding and resiliency. This is especially important because we may lose Army Corps funding if we don’t comply, which is much more than Blue Acres funds. This would allow neighborhoods to be bought out much faster than in the past, and could get people out of harm’s way quickly. We also need to expand Blue Acres and purchase many more homes, and instate a ‘three strikes your out’ policy for people who refuse buyouts. Buying out these areas restores floodplains and protects other neighborhoods,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The government uses eminent domain to widen highways, build bridges and transit systems. They allow utilities to use it for water lines and gas pipelines. They even allow it to be used for private developments such as highrises, so why not use it for protecting people and property from flooding and storm surges.”