As part of this editorial package NJ Spotlight has developed an interactive poll to demonstrate how many complex factors affect decisions to accept buyouts or stay on and rebuild
A small photo of Fran O’Connor’s parents rests on an otherwise empty mantel. It’s the only personal item left in her gutted, gray split-level in Sayreville after 16 feet of water from the nearby Raritan and South Rivers surged through the house during superstorm Sandy.
“Shelves were ripped off walls when this water came in, and this little plastic frame just stood there,” she explained. “So I thought it was important to keep it there to keep my house safe . . . until they demolish it.”
For many homeowners and businesses recovering from Sandy, the mantra has been to rebuild stronger. But some New Jersey residents like O’Connor have concluded that their best option is not to rebuild at all. In the aftermath of the storm, $300 million of federal aid money has been set aside to acquire groups of damaged homes in flood-prone parts of the state, through the Department of Environmental Protection’s Blue Acres program. Nearly 140 homeowners in Sayreville have been accepted into the program and will receive the pre-storm value of their homes, which will then be demolished and likely turned into a park.
Appraisers have completed inspections of the homes and formal offers are expected in the coming weeks. However, for everyone who receives a buyout, there are dozens more homeowners still looking for a way out. Further, while the buyouts are a good deal for homeowners financially, the decision to leave is still difficult for many residents.
For years, neighbors on Weber and MacArthur avenues fought to save their neighborhood.
They had long been accustomed to streets flooding during storms, but the amount of water — and the damage it causes — has been increasing in recent years. In 1992, a storm sent water rushing into their homes for the first time in recent memory. They were severely flooded again with a Nor’easter in 2010 and Hurricane Irene in 2011.
Some 138 homes on Weber and MacArthur Avenues (green arrow) are in the process of receiving buyout offers from the state. The Old Bridge section of Sayreville (red arrow) experienced severe flooding during Sandy, but residents there have not yet been offered buyouts.
Still, residents campaigned for floodgates and a levy system on the river, but for many that fight ended after Sandy. The storm marked the third time in three years that residents needed to gut their first floors, throw out barely used furniture, and replace pricey appliances.
“It was a devastating moment to realize that we needed to shift gears and move on and not come back here,” said O’Connor, who lives on Weber Avenue. “It was heartbreaking.”
“I still teeter with it,” said Mike Zollinger, who lives next door to her.
Zollinger built his house with his father 42 years ago. By the kitchen, there’s a wall made of stones he dug out of the Delaware River. He says if he lived alone, he wouldn’t sell.
“But, [my wife] wouldn’t deserve this again,” he said. “Nah, I’m moving, that’s it.”
The vast majority of Zollinger’s neighbors will go with him. Appraisals have been conducted on their homes, and residents will have a chance to review purchase offers from the state in the coming weeks.
The cause of the recent flooding problems is rooted in years of overdevelopment throughout the area, said Debbie Mans of NY/NJ Baykeeper, an environmental group that’s studied Sandy’s impact on the region. Standing at the end of a dead-end street, just a hundred feet or so from the bank of the South River, she points to a row of houses in neighboring East Brunswick that were built in the past 15 years.
“You can see right across the river is a newer development that’s actually been built at an elevated level,” she said.
“As far as I know, those homes didn’t flood, but the more you’re filling in the floodplain with development and impervious surface, you’re taking away the areas where it should naturally be flooding, and you’re pushing all that water somewhere else, and the water has to go somewhere.”
The place it went was rushing through Sayreville’s waterfront neighborhoods, damaging hundreds of homes and apartments and collapsing nearly 40 foundations.
Mans speculated that many of those homes never should have been built so close to the river in the first place, and she’s especially concerned with all the new waterfront construction that’s taken place over just the past few decades.
“It’s continually being developed without an understanding of what one development in one town means to another town up or down river,” she said, noting that the problem of eroding wetlands is compounded by climate change and an increase in severe weather like Sandy. “I think that’s all coming together, unfortunately, for this community.”
The extent of the damage in Sayreville and the number of willing sellers is what made sections of this town attractive for a state buyout in the first place.
If all the homeowners in the area accepted the buyout, the borough wouldn’t have to maintain roads, sewers, and electric lines and repair them with each flood.
“Our problems would go away in reference to infrastructure,” explained Dan Frankel, Sayreville’s business administrator. “The entire two streets on both sides would be open land.”
However, Frankel is skeptical that everyone who is offered a buyout will take it.
“It’s hard to get 100 percent compliance,” he said, noting that participation in the program is voluntary. “I just don’t think we’re going to get it.”
If just one or two people opt to stay, the town will still have to maintain the roads and services, plus a new park, if that’s what the area becomes. Additionally, if all the homeowner who accept buyouts were to move out of Sayreville, the town could lose $1 million in annual property tax revenue. Given the town’s $50 million annual budget, Frankel deems that loss “very significant.”
Additionally, there are more homeowners in Sayreville who would like buyouts, but who have not yet been accepted into the Blue Acres program.
Just a few miles from Zollinger’s and O’Connor’s neighborhood, the Old Bridge section of town — at the far southern edge of Sayreville — also experienced massive flooding. Gov. Chris Christie walked the streets the day after Sandy, meeting with residents and promising to help, but more than nine months later, many of the houses are vacant, and residents say they’re still waiting for help to arrive.
Dawn Obel has been living in an apartment since last October, when flood waters damaged her home’s foundation and sent raw sewage flowing through her first floor. Today, it remains uninhabitable, with the floors ripped up, portions of the walls gutted, and the basement still caked with mud from the nearby river.
“It was a pretty house,” said Obel. “Now it just looks dirty and smells, and it’s disgusting! I’m sad that it’s my house. I wish it was somebody else’s house so I could feel bad for them and not me!”
She said she can’t afford to raise her home to comply with the new FEMA flood maps, nor will she be able to foot the bill for the increased cost of flood insurance, so she’s been holding off on doing repairs, hoping for a buyout so she can leave the neighborhood and move on with her life. If she’s not offered a buyout, she said the alternative looks bleak.
“I’m most likely gonna have to lose my home, foreclose on it, and then wind up living in an apartment the rest of my life,” she said.
Close to 80 percent of the 50 or so homeowners in Obel’s neighborhood agree that they’ve had enough and want out. They claim that they’ve historically flooded more often than some of the homes that have been offered buyouts in the other part of Sayreville. Plus, they said flooding blocks the two bridges in and out of the neighborhood, trapping residents during storms and making it nearly impossible for emergency help to arrive.
Residents said they’ve been speaking with various state and local officials, trying to figure out why no one in their part of town has received a buyout offer so far, but they’ve had difficulty getting their phone calls returned and their questions answered. Mans of New York/New Jersey Baykeeper agreed that the Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the Blue Acres program, needs to be more transparent with its process.
“How many applications have they gotten? Where have they done appraisals? Where are they targeting?” she asked. “That should all be public knowledge.”
The DEP responds that it’s weighing a number of factors, including how many homeowner applicants are in a group, how much land they have, and how often and severely they’ve experienced flooding. The department gives individual towns a large say over which of their neighborhoods and how many of their homes get bought out, since property acquisitions erode their tax base. And federal money is in play, so FEMA needs to sign off on all decisions.
“We have to go through a 54-step process to get an approved application out of FEMA. It’s an art,” said Rich Boornazian, who oversees the Blue Acres program. “We have to put certain homes in, take certain homes out. It’s not easy.”
For their part, Sayreville officials speculate the reason residents of the Old Bridge part of town haven’t received buyout offers so far may be because they didn’t experience enough substantial damage or because not enough people from the neighborhood applied.
In response, residents have been knocking on one another’s doors, rounding up even more support. And they said the latest revisions to the FEMA flood maps, which put their neighborhood at greater risk of future flooding, could help their cause.
Boornazian said the DEP plans to return to Sayreville at some point to announce a second round of buyouts. The department is currently equipped to make offers to about 50 homeowners a month, but that could increase to about 150 in the near future. The 54-step process means it could take a while, though, so residents need to be patient, he said. That’s a problem for homeowners anxious for answers and eager to move out of temporary housing. Plus, the late-summer storm season is quickly approaching.
Before Sandy, the Blue Acres program had a modest budget of only about $12 million a year. Although the post-storm infusion of $300 million of federal relief money is a sizable increase, it’s still a drop in the bucket, given the demand for the buyouts and the scale of the overall problem.
“That’s a real news flash,” Governor Christie said at a press conference in South River last month, responding to the concern that many residents of flood-prone areas will ultimately be unable to get buyouts.
“Just so we’re clear to everybody, I never promised, nor am I promising today that we’re going to buy out every home that ever got water in the basement. That’s not what we’re gonna do. We’re going to buy out the neighborhoods that got most severely damaged after Sandy.”
But determining which neighborhoods were the most severely damaged is a tricky business. In addition, buyout efforts so far have focused on more inland areas — like along the Passaic and Raritan rivers — but environmentalists say the need is just as great along the coast. Tough decisions will likely have to be made in the coming months, and even those calling for more buyouts admit that unless the budget is dramatically increased, there are no easy solutions.