BERKELEY – There are shore neighborhoods where you can walk past tall reeds on the side of the road and think about how nice it is that this land so close to the water is open space. Then you see a fence that has been reclaimed by nature and you realize: this used to be somebody’s home.
After Superstorm Sandy devastated bayfront communities, some of the land is being purchased and preserved as open space. Usually, large areas of land are purchased to keep it from ever being developed. But something different is happening here. These are individual, buildable lots that at one time had homes but are now being turned into open space.
There are a few programs in play. One is the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund, which is fueled by a tax on every property in Ocean County. Throughout the years, it’s been used to take property off the market.
14 individual properties between 2015 and 2021 were acquired under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The funding for these properties is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department of Environmental Protection. Approximately $6.5 million in grant funds are to be reimbursed in 2022.
These properties, once developed with residential homes, have been or are in the process of returning to their natural state in order to further buffer the coastal marsh from development and reduce the risk and impact of routine coastal flooding, common to the area, said Commissioner Virginia Haines, liaison to the Trust.
“All properties are preserved open space,” she said. They will eventually return to their natural state.
Following Superstorm Sandy, the more developed section of Good Luck Point in Berkeley (east of Bayview Avenue on Dorrance and Good Luck Drive) became a complementary project area as homes were damaged or demolished, she said. Other properties in the same area are in the process of being acquired.
Additionally, the 0.44-acre Wright property in Berkeley has been preserved and since improved with a small gravel parking lot and direct access to the creek. It was purchased in 2014 for $110,000. In 2015, an 11-acre property was preserved with the purchase of the Good Luck Point – Veeder property for $90,000.
Berkeley’s not the only town to benefit from this. In 2016, a .15-acre property off South Burgee Drive in Little Egg Harbor was purchased for $110,000. In 2019, an .11-acre parcel in Manahawkin was purchased for $47,500. This is in the process of returning the property to its natural state as part of the county’s surrounding 100-acre Manahawkin Marsh preserve.
The county continues to reach out to willing sellers for more property to purchase, Haines said.
The federal government sees low-lying shore properties as “repetitive losses.” In states where hurricanes are more devastating, the country is bailing out the same homeowners more than once. At that point, it’s more cost effective to just buy the land and prevent it from ever being built on again.
Environmentally, some of these properties probably should never have been homes. For example, the man-made lagoons that populate the east coast in Ocean County. Dunes and native plants slow storm surges, not houses.
And it’s also safer. With no one living there, no one has to be evacuated or rescued. First responders told stories about going door to door after Sandy to make sure no one was inside – dead or alive. They would mark the doors to tell others that they had already been checked.
Taking these properties off the market means that there are less ratables for township coffers. Shore homeowners tend to pay more in taxes because it’s a desirable area. Municipal officials say that it’s worth it for all the reasons listed above. They also note a lesser known benefit.
“Purchasing these flood prone (repetitive loss) areas will not only make that area more resilient but will improve our standing in the National Flood Insurance Program with our Community Rating System,” Berkeley Mayor Carmen Amato said. “As you know we participate in this program which enables homeowners who are required to purchase flood insurance, at a discounted rate. Prior to January 2012 we were a class 7 community which offered a 15% discount. Since then, we have been very aggressive in updating our ordinances and working with other entities to purchase flood prone areas. Because of our efforts we improved our CRS rating twice and are now a class 5 which entitles our flood insurance homeowners a 25% discount.”
Although the lands return to a more natural state, some work still needs to be done on it. Edges of the property are mowed to make sure it’s safe for drivers, for example. If it’s on the water, it might have bulkheading. Sometimes, a neighboring property still has someone living there. Bulkheads only work properly if all of them are maintained – a line of fortification that includes you and your neighbors.
“Natural Lands Trust properties acquired by the county that include bulkheading will be maintained as such until the time we can safely and effectively remove the bulkheading,” said Mark A. C. Villinger, Supervising Planner for the county. “If there are developed properties adjacent to an acquired property we have to consider impacts to these neighbors. The long term goal would be to restore shorelines of these properties in the most effective way to preserve our open space into the future.”
Any necessary maintenance of Natural Lands Trust properties is completed by county staff, he said.
To see a map of all properties purchased by the county for open space, visit the Planning Department website at planning.co.ocean.nj.us/frmEPNaturalLandTrust