Blue Acres Buyout purchases first property in Rahway

RAHWAY, NJ — The city of Rahway is the latest community to join the growing list of flood-prone towns to seek and accept buyouts from the Department of Environmental Protection’s Superstorm Sandy Blue Acres Buyout Program.

The state recently closed on the purchase of a home on New Church Street in Rahway, and continues working to make flood-prone communities across the state more resilient from future flooding.

Rahway joins Linden as the second municipality in Union County to participate in the program.

Gov. Chris Christie launched the program through the DEP in 2013 to run the state’s post-Sandy initiative to purchase homes from willing sellers in flood-prone areas at pre-Sandy values. Individual case managers work with homeowners to guide them through buyout process, and once a purchase is completed, the homes are demolished and the land permanently preserved as open space for recreation or conservation purposes.

In the three years since its launch, Blue Acres has secured funding to purchase 846 properties in 14 municipalities statewide, with buyouts under way in eight counties. Of 763 offers extended, 587 have been accepted. Closings have been completed on 470 properties, and 346 have been demolished.

Buyout funding is provided by the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program; the Blue Acres fund; and the State Land Acquisition fund. The DEP will continue to submit buyout applications to the federal government for additional properties on a rolling basis.

NJDEP commissioner Bob Martin said that neighborhoods are evaluated carefully before acceptance into the buyout program. “The program evaluates neighborhoods for buyouts based on several criteria,” Martin told LocalSource. “Among them is having a cluster of homes or whole neighborhoods that have sustained flood damage from Superstorm Sandy or repeated flood damage from previous storms, willing sellers, and local governmental support.” Martin also cited cost-effectiveness of a buyout according to federal guidelines; opportunity for significant environmental impact; and improvement to the public’s health, welfare and safety as other considerations.
Martin said that the program is currently working with approximately 30 interested homeowners in Rahway. “Like Rahway, many communities that are participating in the program are inland, versus along the shore, which was battered during Superstorm Sandy,” said Martin.

Rahway Mayor Sam Steinman said that the demolition of purchased homes in the city will help mitigate flooding issues. “Rahway saw extensive flooding during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy,” Steinman told LocalSource. “Sandy damage was contained primarily to flooding along the South Branch of the river. The creation of large areas of open space will allow flood water to dissipate, which will lessen the flooding to the homes that remain.”

Steinman maintains that although there are many Rahway homes in flood-prone areas, not all will be able to participate in the program. “The process of purchasing the initially approved properties has taken over two years,” said Steinman. “There were property owners that were not included. Since there are hundreds of homes in flood hazard areas, not all properties will have the opportunity to participate.”

According to Martin, houses entered into the buyout program are valued at their pre-storm value by an independent appraiser for the home’s market resale value, not the tax assessment, which is typically higher. “This is how a home would be appraised if it was being sold to any buyer, not just the state,” said Martin. “An official appeals process is in place for homeowners who are unsatisfied with the first appraisal they receive. Also, if a homeowner owned his home the day before Superstorm Sandy, the home is valued at pre-storm levels. If the home has changed ownership since then, the homeowner would receive current market value for the home,” he said.

Not everyone lauds the initiative, however. Jeff Tittel, Director of environmental group New Jersey Sierra Club, is critical of the direction in which the program is heading. “The Department of Environmental Protection has purchased more Blue Acres buyouts in Rahway without including any flood-prone properties along the Jersey Shore,” said Tittel. “The limited federal money we have is running low and will not help people in all areas of New Jersey. The DEP announced another flood-prone area in Rahway for Blue Acres buyouts, however we may run out of funding for people along the shore. Many homeowners along the coast do not have the money to re-build or do not want to go through another nightmare like Hurricane Sandy. Right now there are hundreds of homes experiencing impacts from flooding and sea level rise. There are even people who are supposed to get bought out who are waiting for funding and may not get it,” he said.
But Martin asserts that many homeowners along the shore have shown no interest in the program. “Many shore towns have not participated in the buyout program due to lack of interest,” said Martin. “Homeowners in those communities have been unwilling to sell their properties, and participation in the buyout program is completely voluntary.

Program officials have been up and down the shore, but there has been very little interest, or if someone was interested, it was a homeowner with a property assessed at $1 million,” he said.

Regarding the shore homes, Tittel maintains that, “with over 40,000 people being displaced, how can they even survey or know where they are? Many people along coastal areas are being held hostage to the next storm by the DEP because they are not being bought out under the Blue Acres program. We need a long-term solution to reduce development in the most-flood prone areas, but the DEP is keeping people stuck along the coast who want to leave. What is even worse is that the Christie administration are saying to these people not only do you have to rebuild, but you may have to spend $30,000 a year on flood insurance.”

But mayors from communities far from the shore are lauding the program, such as Linden Mayor Derek Armstead. “Although the shore area got most of the news coverage, Linden was not spared and felt the impact in our Tremley Point and Emma Place neighborhoods, both which are not far from the Arthur Kill waterway,” Armstead told LocalSource. “With the help of the governor’s administration and the DEP implementing the Blue Acre Buyout Program, 40 of our Linden homeowners signed up for this voluntary program. Presently 13 homes since October 2015 have closed, with 27 homeowners still in negotiation for their selling price. The buyout program gave our Linden families the opportunity to move forward and rebuild their future. Recently, the DEP informed us that they are working on plans to demolish the 13 homes already sold,” he said.

A number of Sandy-damaged communities were among the first to take advantage of the program, including Sayreville, South River, Woodbridge, East Brunswick, and Old Bridge in Middlesex County. Purchases have also been made in other flood-prone areas of the state including Manville Borough in Somerset County, Lawrence and Downe townships in Cumberland County, Pompton Lakes in Passaic County, and Newark in Essex County. The program has also moved into New Milford in Bergen County and Ocean Township in Monmouth County.