Blue Acres: Now Is the Time

Jersey needs to make greater use of its program to buy out homes in flood zones.

Andrew Mills/Star Ledger/Corbis.

In late August, Hurricane Irene brought lots of panic and concern about flooding and the costs associated with such a disaster. Still, we moved on to the next crisis without realizing that the time is long overdue for a sober discussion about how to avoid future floods and the potential damage to property in flood-prone areas.

I have this crazy idea that our state should be able to focus on more than one issue at a time. Of course, we need to engage in meaningful education reform, stabilize property taxes and create an economic environment that supports job growth. But can’t we also address the impact of flooding?
I recently spoke with Bob Iacullo, president of United Water, a company that provides water and wastewater services to more than 1.5 million people in New Jersey and also serves customers nationwide.

Iacullo has strong feelings about how New Jersey can better prepare for natural catastrophes such as floods. “We need to look at some examples from other states and programs already in place in New Jersey,” says Iacullo, reminding us that Jersey has a hazard mitigation communication plan that was put into effect in 2005. That program is required for the state to be eligible for federal disaster funds.

Additionally, we have Blue Acres, which is part of Green Acres, a 50-year-old program administered by the state and intended to preserve green space and protect water quality. Blue Acres, says Iacullo, “is designed to look at reducing the repetitive loss of property by acquiring properties, demolishing the structures on them and then returning that property to open space in perpetuity.”

The concept has worked in states such as Missouri, which initiated a buyout program in 1993 and is considered a model of good policy. “From 1993 to 2000, Missouri, with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, acquired more than 4,000 properties in 99 communities,” says Iacullo. During that period, Missouri had major floods in 1993, 1995 and 2003.

Individual assistance payments in Missouri were reduced from $33 million following the 1993 floods to $2 million after the 2003 floods. In the interim, Missouri had spent approximately $100 million purchasing flood-prone properties and demolishing structures under its buyout program. “Do the math,” says Iacullo, and it’s clear that over a period of time, this is a cost-effective program.

So why hasn’t Blue Acres solved the flooding problem in New Jersey? One of the biggest issues is that these programs are voluntary, and homeowners can’t be forced to sell. “People have emotional ties to their homes, they have memories and their children grew up there,” says Iacullo. “However, you come to a point where you have to look at it and say, ‘What is in the best interest of people?’”

The answer is a smart, strategic buyout program. One of the best ways to achieve that is by increasing the funding to the New Jersey Blue Acres program, which received $48 million from FEMA in July, with the goal of leveraging those funds with existing Blue Acres money and buying out properties. In fact, Governor Chris Christie indicated that $35 million would be used to purchase homes in Wayne, where homeowners endure some of the worst flooding in the state.

Senator Bob Gordon, a Democrat whose Bergen County district was hit hard by flooding from Hurricane Irene, has proposed legislation that would allow towns to create Blue Acres zones and apply for Green Acres money to buy flood-prone homes.

This legislation is a good step, as is the governor’s use of FEMA dollars. Still, the funding is not nearly enough. And for those who argue in these difficult fiscal times that we can’t afford to run such a program, my response is, how can we afford not to?

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