A New Strategy for Climate Change? Retreat
Years from now, as the rising tides and brutal storms wrought by climate change push the residents of coastal towns around the U.S. away from the water's edge, each of those towns will confront some version of the same question: What do you do about people like the Nelsons?
Michael and Kate Nelson are the last permanent residents of Bay Point, New Jersey, a few dozen homes perched on the nub of land where Cedar Creek empties into the Delaware Bay, 30 miles northwest of the Atlantic Ocean. After Superstorm Sandy ripped out five of those homes in 2012, the state of New Jersey offered to buy those that remained, aiming to clear the land and restore it as a habitat for oysters and crabs. Most homeowners said yes. The Nelsons refused.
"We don't really have any other place to go," Michael Nelson told me, standing outside the RV and shed where he and his wife now live, not far from their house, which was rendered uninhabitable by Sandy. The couple owes more on their mortgage than the $12,000 they say the state would pay for their house, after deducting what they've already received through their flood insurance. They are now surrounded by abandoned homes awaiting demolition.
That doesn't seem to bother them. "It's hard for me, being born and bred here, to leave here," Nelson said. "When I leave, that's the end of Bay Point."
From the state's perspective, the end of Bay Point is the whole idea. The goal is to make the area, along with other flood-prone neighborhoods, less vulnerable to future storms. To do that, New Jersey has sought to purchase large chunks of property, raze the homes that stand on them, and turn the land into open fields and marshlands that can absorb floods and rainwater and protect homes farther inland. As last week's flooding in Louisiana demonstrates, it's a model other states will want to pay attention to.
More than three years and $96 million in federal and state money later, that program, called Superstorm Sandy Blue Acres, has demonstrated the promise -- and limits -- of voluntary buyouts for coping with climate change. As of mid-May, New Jersey had bought 471 homes in 11 towns and cities. Assuming none of those people then bought homes in another flood zone (the state says it doesn't track where sellers move to), that's 471 families who won't need help after the next storm. But what does it mean for the places they leave behind?
'They Want to Take All This Away From Me'
My guide in Bay Point was Erwin Sheppard, a committeeman for surrounding Lawrence Township and a farmer who grows asparagus, cucumber and lettuce on fields just inland from the coastal marsh. He said the township's taxable property value has fallen 3 percent since the buyouts because the state doesn't pay property tax on the land it purchases. That means $186,000 less in annual tax revenue -- no small drop for a township of just 3,300 people.
Still, Sheppard supports the program, saying it helps those who can't afford to keep putting money into homes that would eventually fall into the sea anyway.
That's not a universal sentiment. A mile down the coast from Bay Point is the next cluster of homes the state wants to buy, in a community called Money Island. Robert Campbell, mayor of surrounding Downe Township, says he'll do everything he can to stop it.
The reason is money. Eighty-five percent of Downe is already tax-exempt, much of it owned by the state's Department of Environmental Protection as fish and wildlife reserves. That means the 58 properties on Money Island, which make up $15 million in taxable land value, are among the local government's biggest source of revenue.
"Here comes DEP, and they want to take all this away from me, and I can't afford it," Campbell told me over a crabmeat-and-hamburger sandwich. "If the state of New Jersey wants to buy the island and pay property taxes, fine."
'We Can't Take Down Half a House'
In Woodbridge Township, a bedroom community of 100,000 across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island, the problem isn't too many people taking the buyout, but too few. As of mid-May, New Jersey had bought 128 houses in Woodbridge, according to data provided by the Department of Environmental Protection. But when Mayor John McCormac and emergency management director Patrick Kenny drove me around the areas of town hit hardest by Sandy, they were dotted with the homes of people who so far have refused to sell.
The reasons were a mix of personal and financial; in one case, a homeowner was staying because his children needed the money he would otherwise have to spend on another house. "He wants to put them through college, and he can't afford it," Kenny said.
Another challenge for the Blue Acres program: 15 percent of eligible homeowners owe more on their houses than they could get from the state, according to Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman. He said the state is trying to get banks to forgive some of that debt, and has succeeded in 55 of 85 cases. (The Nelsons are among those whose mortgages the state is trying to reduce.)
But after a bank forecloses on a home, the state won't buy it. "Once a home is no longer owned by the family, it is less of a priority for Blue Acres," Hajna said.
Whatever the reason, each unsold house gets in the way of the program's goal, which is to create land buffers, ideally entire blocks, between rivers and homes. The maps below are for Woodbridge; the picture is similar in other towns I visited.
The jigsaw-puzzle pattern of empty lots with houses on either side won't do the job. Holdouts force towns to keep providing municipal services (garbage pickup, water, sewage, road maintenance, snowplows, streetlights, police, firefighters) to a shrinking tax base. And they prevent the creation of barriers against the next storm surge.
Forget buying entire blocks; the program has sometimes struggled to purchase entire homes. McCormac and Kenny drove me past a duplex where the state bought one unit, only to have the other owner decide not to sell.
"Now they got a half a house that they can't do nothing with," Kenny said. "We can't take down half a house."
'I Just Like Where I Am'
Twenty minutes south of Woodbridge, on the other side of the Raritan River, the towns of Sayreville and South River are stumped by another question: What can local governments do with those newly empty individual lots, nestled between houses that might not be coming down anytime soon?
Sitting at a table in his office in South River's municipal building, borough administrator Frederick Carr ran down a list of what the state prohibits towns from doing with the land. No new structures can be built. The ground can't be paved for parking. Picnic tables aren't allowed if they're attached to the ground. The lots can't even become community vegetable gardens, Carr said, because it might compact the soil.
Across the river, in Sayreville, Councilman Arthur Rittenhouse walked me along what's left of Weber Avenue, where Blue Acres had bought 61 houses as of May. Instead of maintaining those lots, the city has decided to leave them to nature for now; they've sprouted mini-fields of waist-high grass and shrubs.
But because many homeowners remain, so do the streets, curbs, streetlamps and electrical wires. The result is mildly post-apocalyptic, as if a calamity had claimed the block's residents and most of its buildings.
Rittenhouse and I knocked on the doors of the houses still occupied, hoping to find out why those residents decided to stay. We met Janice Porcaro, a 65-year-old retired union laborer who lives with her children and grandchildren. The three of us sat at her kitchen table as she passed around photographs of the wreckage of her home after Sandy.
Porcaro said that if the state had given her an offer right after Sandy, she might have said yes. But having repaired her house, she had no intention of leaving it. "I just like where I am," she said. Though she would prefer it if the city would cut the grass where her neighbors' homes used to be.
You're Leaving One Way or Another
The shortcomings of voluntary buyouts raise an uncomfortable question: Should local governments use eminent domain to force out reluctant homeowners?
When I put that question to local officials, they recoiled. "This is serious business," said South River's Carr. Kennedy O'Brien, Sayreville's mayor, told me the city had decided not to use eminent domain against holdouts "because they're our friends."
But the distance between a voluntary program and coercion isn't quite as far as it may seem. Those who decide to repair homes damaged by floods are supposed to elevate them, often as much as 16 feet, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.
There is also a gentle nudge from above. John Krenzel, mayor of South River, said the federal government has suggested that assistance would be limited for those who chose to stay. "Next flood, don't expect anything from us" is the message he recalled getting.
The line between voluntary and mandatory is thinnest along the Delaware Bayshore, where the state argues that the remaining houses in places such as Money Island are public health hazards, thanks to septic tanks that leak into the sea, and could be condemned. Campbell, the Downe Township mayor, said the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Bob Martin, threatened to take those houses down one way or another.
If people on Money Island don't take the buyouts, "We will regulate them out of their houses," Campbell says Martin told him, "and they will get nothing." (In response to Campbell's account, Hajna, the DEP spokesman, said in an e-mail that Money Island homeowners "are not going to be held to any lesser standard for compliance with environmental regulations than any other property owner.")
Campbell contends the real reason the state wants the homes on Money Island so badly is to increase participation in the program, which as of May had spent less than one-third of the $300 million it has committed. Wealthier communities along the Jersey Shore have declined to participate; as a result, Campbell says, the Blue Acres program is "after anything that they can get."
'How Much Will You Give Me?'
If there's anything Blue Acres didn't seem to account for, it's the entrepreneurial spirit of the real-estate industry. In every town I visited, "for sale" signs stood in front of homes that remained, tiny rectangles of defiance against the government's urging to clear out.
Local officials told stories of stumbling across real-estate agents leading prospective buyers around neighborhoods; asked if they knew the homes were in a flood plain, those buyers expressed surprise. In Woodbridge, city officials said they're trying to pass an ordinance that would discourage people from buying homes in flood zones by effectively making it impossible to renovate them.
Who's moving into these houses? In Manville, a town of 10,000 squeezed between the Raritan and Millstone rivers half an hour north of Princeton University, I met a man named Freddie (he declined to give his last name) in front of the house he said he had moved into just the week before. The house was on the street closest to the Millstone River; some of the surrounding lots were empty, the houses on them already demolished.
Freddie told me he had paid $190,000 for the house and would love to pick up more like it as "quick flips." He professed to be unconcerned about the risk of flooding; anyway, he said, he had bought flood insurance. ("The house is fully loaded.") He said he liked having empty space around him, and asked if I thought the city would object if he took some of the trees from those lots and moved them onto his yard.
But where appeals to personal safety and civic duty fail, more materialistic incentives might work. When I told Freddie the details of the Blue Acres program, and that the government was trying to move people out of the area, he seemed excited by the possibilities.
"So you think in six months," Freddie asked me, "I can send the city a letter and say, 'How much will you give me?'"
The Right to Be Left Alone
What makes New Jersey's program quietly radical is the enormous extent of its potential application. In the past decade, the National Flood Insurance Program recorded 14,865 buildings that were damaged two or more times by flooding in New Jersey. (Of those, 4,373 were damaged four times or more.) Nor is the state unique: 24 states had 1,000 or more homes that were hurt by floods more than once over that period. Nationwide, almost 160,000 houses posted what the Federal Emergency Management Agency calls "repetitive losses" -- a number that is almost certainly higher after the floods in Louisiana.
By the criteria that guide New Jersey's program, each of those could be a candidate for a federally funded buyout. But judging from the program's actual performance, few of them would take advantage of something like Blue Acres, even if it were available to them -- which, absent some catastrophe on the scale of Sandy, doesn't seem imminent. A Congress that can't agree that climate change is real is unlikely to provide tens of billions of dollars for dealing with its consequences.
Other states will soon find themselves squeezed between the same problems New Jersey faces: local emergency management personnel tired of rescuing people from houses that keep flooding, federal agencies tired of paying for the cleanup that inevitably follows. Fatigue will eventually overpower the force of habit.
As that point approaches, money won't be the problem -- at least, not the main problem. Nor will real-estate agents and developers, which local councils, once sufficiently aggravated, will probably find the courage to thwart. And foreclosed homes will eventually be purchased, the toxicity of giving public money to banks having been overtaken by the eyesore of neglected properties standing in the way of open land.
The biggest problem will be those who don't want to sell for the price governments are willing to pay. Those holdouts will often be, in the words of Sayreville's mayor, not just neighbors, but friends. Like the Nelsons, they may simply ask to be left alone, free to live with the consequences of their choices. The challenge for their friends and neighbors will be to decide whether to say yes.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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