Our towns occupy one of the most densely populated counties in the most crowded state of the union. Land that would elsewhere be a meadow, hillside or river bank, here is a prime setting for housing. But, as residents of flood-prone areas around the Passaic River and its tributaries know all too well, many of the homes in these 100-year flood plains should never have been built. This certainly holds true for Little Falls, but is also a significant issue for houses near the Second and Third Rivers in Bloomfield. As of last Thursday, new legislation has gone to the state senate that would draw further attention to this problem and broaden the possibilities of implementing a program for municipalities to buy back the worst of the flood zone homes. The concept is designed to reclaim problematic properties and convert the land into park and conservation areas. But the idea isn’t brand new. In fact, it’s already underway in Bloomfield.
“What we know today about developing along the township’s flood plain areas isn’t what we knew 50 to 70 years ago,” Bloomfield’s 2nd Ward Councilman, Nick Joanow told Baristanet. “This new referendum would allow money to be leveraged in ways that are specific to each community, and would widen the interpretation of the use of public funds for conversion to open spaces.”
Joanow was instrumental in getting Bloomfield’s Open Space Trust Fund (OSTF) started, and continues to be actively involved. Through this publicly-financed program, the municipality can investigate properties that need continual repair from flood damage, and are a chronic drain to local and national funds (FEMA). According to Joanow, half a cent of each municipal tax dollar goes to the OSTF. An advisory group to the town council, OSTF is about 90 percent of the way toward acquiring its first property. Although Joanow didn’t convey any specifics, he did say that the land would be remediated of contamination, cleared and finally used for recreation and conservation purposes. “If we can take flood-prone properties off the tax rolls, we can avoid the costs of doing the same remediations again and again. And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of human suffering that can be spared.”
While the OSTF effort is funded by the local tax payers — as are all such programs — Joanow explained that the expense of purchasing and razing the recidivist properties will ultimately mean significant savings for the municipality.
The proposed legislation would support and expand the Blue Acres program, which has been operating since 2007, when the state authorized $12 million for the acquisition of lands in the floodways of the Passaic River (as well as the Delaware and Raritan Rivers), and their respective tributaries. In 2009, an additional $24 million was approved for this purpose. The idea is that the state would acquire the property, demolish the home and designate the land as an open space. According to NJDEP’s web site, properties that have been “damaged by, or may be prone to incurring damage caused by, storms or storm-related flooding, or that may buffer or protect other lands from such damage, are eligible for acquisition.”
Bill S-3078, introduced by state senator Rober Gordon, would allow the governing body of a municipality to submit to the voters a proposition authorizing an annual levy specifically for the purchase of flood-prone properties as “Blue Acres” projects. These acquisitions would reclaim lands that have been damaged by — or are prone to incurring damage — from storms or storm-related flooding, or that would serve as a buffer to protect other lands from damage, and earmark them for recreation and conservation purposes.
“I’m thrilled that the senate is entertaining this discussion,” said Joanow. Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, is also pleased, though he said that, if passed, the new law won’t really change the process.”There’s no downside to the bill. It brings more attention to Blue Acres, but counties and towns can already use the current mechanisms to apply,” he explained.
A second bill also waiting for senate hearing, S-3099, would authorize the state to issue $100 million in bonds to provide grants to local governments for expenses to public entities incurred for projects caused directly or indirectly by Hurricane Irene. If passed, the bill would allow the state to authorize these funds, but would not require them to do so.
Bloomfield’s OSTF Committee has asked the township for a list of properties that have filed repetitive claims for flood damage, but Joanow warns that there is a limitation to how many properties they’ll be able to purchase. There is likely to be many more applicants than the town has money to accommodate, and there will be a process used to identify the highest priority homes. “We’ve been accumulating money, but it will be a competitive selection, almost like a lottery system. The homes will be evaluated by the advisory committee and purchases made based on available funds.”
Little by little, our dense area may get greener — and less flood-prone — but it’ll take some time.
Click here for more information on offering your land to the state.
Photos by Maria Probst, who lives in Bloomfield, near Brookside Park.