Blue Acres Makes a ‘Good Start’ at Removing Flood-Prone Properties

Jon Hurdle | October 7, 2019 | Energy & Environment
But even as state’s buyout program recently made its 700th purchase, critics say it has barely scratched the surface
Credit: Brooke Maslo
Replaced by a meadow: a former street in Woodbridge where houses were demolished by the DEP’s Blue Acres program

It wasn’t easy for Monique Coleman to watch the demolition of the Woodbridge home where she raised her three sons over six years, but the event represented a welcome opportunity to live without flooding, and she was grateful for that.

The demolition in 2015 was enabled by Blue Acres, a program under which the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection buys and clears properties that are chronically flooded by storms and rising seas, on land that’s expected to become increasingly vulnerable to flooding.

The program, which began in 1995 and expanded with federal funding after Superstorm Sandy, has recently completed its 700th acquisition, a house on Henry Street in South River, Middlesex County. It was the latest of 106 purchases and 96 demolitions in a community whose history of flooding over the last 20 years has prompted the local government to warn potential homebuyers to check a property’s vulnerability before buying.

For Coleman, 45, a teacher of the visually impaired, Blue Acres allowed her not only to get out of a house that would have been difficult or impossible to sell on the open market because of its vulnerability to floods, but also to emerge free and clear from a mortgage that exceeded the property’s value.

Even if there had been demand for her 1,400-square-foot house on the open market, Coleman said she and her husband didn’t try to find a buyer because she didn’t want anyone else to endure the conditions that flooded her house three times in three years, culminating in Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

‘A place that should never have existed’

“We lost the property value of our homes, so the buyout was a way to address this and find a permanent solution to the problem, to remove us from harm’s way, and stop people living in a place that should never have existed,” said Coleman, who declined to say how much the program paid for her home.

DEP officials helped Coleman negotiate a short sale — under which a lender accepts a sale price that’s less than the amount owed on the mortgage — a situation that affects about 15% of residents in the buyout program.

To date, Blue Acres has negotiated $5.7 million in debt relief with 35 lenders on behalf of 73 homeowners, DEP said.

Statewide, the program has secured federal funding for 1,022 properties, and has made offers on 967 of them. About 640 homes in 16 municipalities and nine counties have been demolished, creating open space that’s designed as a buffer against future floods, and an asset for recreation and environmental recovery. The department’s policy is to pay what a home was worth before being flooded by a storm.

Difficult though it was to watch the demolition, Coleman said she was glad to be free of the flooding problem.

Witnessing the demolition

“I was actually able to witness my home being demolished,” she said. “It was a surreal experience, sitting there with front-row seats, me and my boys watching their home for six years of their childhood being torn down. But I was just relieved not to have the burden of the flooding.”

To date, Blue Acres has purchased 164 Woodbridge Township properties in three rounds of buyouts, consistent with its policy of buying multiple homes in the same neighborhood to increase its impact on vulnerable areas.

Statewide, DEP said in a statement that it’s “impossible to speculate” on how many properties would be eligible for the program if funding was available. But Federal Emergency Management Agency records show the state has 14,655 “Repetitive Loss” properties — those that have had at least two paid flood losses of more than $1,000 in any 10-year period since 1978.

New Jersey also has about 1,400 “Severe Repetitive Loss” properties which have four or more flood-insurance claims totaling more than $20,000 or have had at least two claims totaling the fair market value of the building.

Credit: Brooke Maslo
A forest restoration initiative in Woodbridge on two former residential lots cleared by the DEP’s Blue Acres program

Independent research suggests that the number of properties acquired by Blue Acres so far is dwarfed by the number that are already vulnerable to flooding or will become more so as seas rise.

Climate Central, a Princeton-based research group, estimates that by 2050, 196,264 homes in New Jersey will be exposed to the kind of flood that typically occurs once a year, assuming moderate cuts in global carbon emissions. Over the same period, the group estimates about 134,000 homes will be vulnerable to bigger floods that are expected to occur once every 10 years. The projections were made with the real estate company Zillow and updated in July this year.

‘New Jersey’s huge vulnerability’

The study estimated that some 231,000 New Jersey homes would be in the flood “risk zone” by 2100 if there are modest cuts in global carbon emissions, rising to more than 280,000 if emissions go unchecked.

Even if the number of vulnerable properties is uncertain, it’s clear that Blue Acres has only just begun to address the problem, argued Ben Strauss, chief executive of Climate Central.

“Given New Jersey’s huge vulnerability to coastal flooding as seas continue to rise, the program is barely scratching the surface,” he said.

Asked whether it agreed with the assessment that Blue Acres had barely begun to address the problem, DEP said it was taking a “broad and aggressive” approach to making the state more resilient to climate change, while addressing its causes.

According to a central projection by climate scientists at Rutgers University in 2016, sea levels at the Jersey Shore are expected to rise 1.4 feet between 2000 and 2050 as oceans swell in response to melting polar ice caps and rising temperatures. By 2100, the central estimate, assuming high global carbon emissions, is for a 3.4-foot rise from the 2000 level.

An aggressive approach

Sea-level rise in New Jersey and other areas of the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast is occurring at about twice the global rate because the land is sinking at the same time.

Brooke Maslo, a Rutgers ecology professor who advises the DEP and townships on how to manage land that has been cleared by Blue Acres, defended the program as a “good start.”

Even if the number of properties purchased so far does not come close to the total threatened by flooding, the Blue Acres program has shown an aggressive approach to dealing with a massive problem, and is being watched by other states and some other countries because New Jersey is a densely populated state with a lot of water and a big problem with rising seas, she said.

“Seven hundred sounds small but it’s a significant step and they have made quite a bit of headway in changing minds, and changing habits, and having people make informed decisions,” Maslo said.

The program has encountered people’s natural resistance to leaving their homes, she said, and could have done a better job of communicating its mission.

“We have mis-labeled this buyout thing as coastal retreat,” she said. “We don’t want to retreat, as Americans. Really, we have to rebrand it as adaptation.”