Jim Quinn interviews Tony Novak.
I had an interesting meeting with a well-connected civil engineer on site here at Money Island yesterday afternoon. Hours earlier, I had a long telephone conversation with the Money Island project manager for The Nature Conservancy. Both conversations added valuable insights.
The TNC official echoed an opinion that I hear often from environmentalists: although they personally support Money Island’s sustainability plan, they believe that certain people in mid-level state management at NJDEP do not. Some state employees would prefer that people abandon Money Island to nature. This is commonly referred to in environmental discussions as a “retreat strategy”. The retreat strategy is certainly worth full consideration. Eventually, with three feet of sea level rise, our town and millions of acres of shoreline will be gone. My response is always the same two points:
- More water is actually good for the future of aquaculture! It may not be good for roads, buildings or traditional infrastructure but we can certainly work around that with currently available construction modifications. Our core mission of providing public, industry and government access to local waterways will not be impaired by future water level rise. (I usually continue the conversation to discuss how Rutgers’ most recent forecasts of tidal impact and flooding trends for the next 30 to 50 years are built into our sustainability plan but don’t need to go into that detail here).
- Life is too short to fight the government. If I suspected that the retreat path was the opinion of state leadership, including NJDEP leadership, then I would change course. Life is too short to be in a battle against the prevailing force of government. But this is not the case. Every high-ranking official in NJDEP and state government that I’ve spoken with – probably more than two dozen by now – have all told me that they support the project and urge m to ‘stay the course’. Some warned me that the road will be difficult and that I will need to be persistent and ‘keep fighting’. Many of these government leaders have even given me pep talks to keep me going through this current struggle, pointing out how important this mission is to future generations. That’s what motivates me. That’s why I stick with the project.
The engineer had more pragmatic comments:
- He agrees with the prevailing opinion that NJDEP should not be taking the current prosecutorial actions against marina infrastructure (our docks) that predate the beginning of permitting requirement laws in the 1970s. Granted, there are a lot of factual details that muddy the situation (historic photography, old land surveys, post-Sandy reconstruction law, etc.) but the core fact remains that our original marina and docks were built in the 1930s before land use permitting were required and therefore should be grandfathered to some extent.
- He asked several times “Why are they…?” and my response in each instance was that we don’t have the legal muscle to show where the state has made factual or legal errors in their prosecution of Money Island stakeholders. In contrast, the state has unlimited legal resources and seems intent on using these resources against us rather than negotiate through traditional problem-solving channels. I referred these factual and legal errors in the courtroom but the judge did not seem to give my objections serious consideration. Without a budget for legal defense, I don’t see any reasonable chance of addressing the state’s errors.
- He says that the fundamental underlying problem is that the state has not yet come to grips with the impact of water level rise on our wetlands and the infrastructure resources in these locations. While viable management approaches are proposed, we aren’t making adequate progress toward implementation. We discussed different aspects of thin layer dredge spray that is part of the Money Island sustainability plan. I suspect that not many people are familiar with this proposal so I would say only that it is public policy that makes a lot more sense from a public policy perspective than our current strategy of pumping sand on the Atlantic coast beaches! Workable sustainability solutions are available if we choose to pursue them.
- The usual first step in planning a project like this is called a pre-permit meeting with a wide range of stakeholders. He doesn’t understand why our requests for a meeting were declined. We discussed the thinking of certain department officials and how those have been addressed in other similar projects. His opinion, based on our exchange of bits of facts and third-party conversations, that our project does have the support of the most influential people who have been effective recently in getting the NJDEP to change their thinking about bayshore sustainability. We discussed the cost of this permitting and told me what I already knew: I would need to find a loan to cover the cost of land use permitting. we didn’t discuss that I’m already working on it or my frustration that the process is moving so slowly.
(An electronic version of this message was submitted through the nj.gov web site on July 20, 2018).
July 18. 2018
Governor Phil Murphy
PO Box 001
Trenton, NJ 08625
Dear Governor Murphy:
According to the most recent census data for the year 2016, the median household income in Cumberland County, NJ declined to $49,537. That compares to over $76,000 average in New Jersey where the average household income is growing at a healthy 5.5% rate overall. Our local property values continue to fall year after year, and are now less than half of the state average. A 2016 study by Rutgers showed that the poorest and most rural areas of New Jersey get the least support from state government. I didn’t need the study to know that; we are still waiting for telephone lines, internet cables, public sewer, waste management solutions, water, police, etc. Yes, we are hurting and the economic gap continues to widen.
Many of us have not yet recovered from the “disaster after the disaster” of Superstorm Sandy where not only did state government exclude our county from essential recovery assistance, but then came in with increased regulation, enforcement and prosecutions of citizens that made our existing struggles much worse. The combination of incompetence and corruption that we saw join forces in post-Sandy governance devastated many of my neighbors. Many of my neighbors have given up and moved away.
Yet we continue to build toward a better future. This week I met with the president of a local federal savings bank on behalf of a small business client. I mentioned that our local government is concerned that there is no bank in our township and this is hurting our chances at economic recovery. His response was clear: there isn’t be a bank here because “there isn’t any money”. It’s true. We don’t have much money. Yet our people are extraordinarily resourceful. We’ve been described as a “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps crowd” that can overcome any challenge except the ongoing oppressive force of government corruption and shortsightedness.
Yesterday I struggled to find the money for a small business state permit application fee. The permit application fee is greater than the annual gross revenue of the project requiring the permit! While the fee would be manageable in other parts of the state, it is an economic deal killer here in rural Cumberland County. During my 20+ years of working here I have come to conclude that our largest problems are excessive taxes and over-regulation. Our property tax rates – measured as a percentage of property value – are perhaps the highest in the country. The percentage of gross revenue our small businesses pay to government is astronomically high. Despite this, we struggle without basic government-supervised services like telephone lines, internet, trash disposal, or public water and sewer. We pay the same but get far less in return. On a daily basis, we suffer the effects of bad public policy and ongoing unreasonable government harassment.
As long as the state government continues to use a “one size fits all” approach and continues to treat us in Cumberland County the same as the rest of the state, we will be locked in this downward spiral. Continuing to use the same failed government tactics will not work! Our county is packed with innovative hard-working citizens who only need the chance to be allowed to crawl from beneath the weight of onerous state government burdens. We can and will rebuild our Cumberland County communities. We simply need to get state government to stop holding us down.
I urge you to immediately empower your administration to fast-track an alternate resolution procedures to allow our citizens to address our struggles with state government in a fair way that considers both the goals of your administration and the reality that is Cumberland County today. Please immediately stop the prosecution of local businesses like our that are trying to cooperate with the state. Please recognize that the overwhelming majority of local government officials and business leaders here are not OK with the state’s current policies toward Cumberland County.
Tony Novak, CPA, MBA, MT
Money Island, New Jersey
One week ago today the New Jersey Superior Court issued an order that I must apply for a range of land use permits for Money Island within 30 days. The immensity of the task is overwhelming. I’ve heard from others who have experience in the land use permitting business that it will be impossible to meet the deadline but I am resolved to do the best job I can. I spoke with the proposed project engineer and government consultant have not yet responded to my request for work proposal, Most concerning is that the proposed investors have abandoned the project after learning of the strict court order. They envisioned working with a more cooperative government and they view the current action as hostile. I will make applications and appeals for new sources of funding but for now I am focused on completing the permitting process.
Today I spent most of the day on the NJDEP fuel tank permit and Fire Safety issues. It felt good to finally makes some progress with these difficult government requirements. I found government resources to be helpful but my contacts in the private sector to be unfamiliar with the concepts. FOr example, our fuel delivery company was unable to respond to the type of air pollution control system in use at the point of fuel delivery.
For the other issues, the Office of Consumer Affairs controls the fire safety issues and they raised new issues that have not been raised before in decades of annual inspections. These new requirements trigger additional expenses. These are also the subject of a 30 day order but I don’t know what relative authority the two orders have in relation to each other. The point is that I can accomplish both, but don’t have enough money to pay for both orders at once.
I estimate that the fuel tank permit application will cost about $800 and the Fire Safety order will cost about $800. The marina business has no net revenue and has actually run at a deficit for at least ten years. So the money comes from my own earnings or other sources. I’ve budgeted $500 per month for the permitting costs which is all I can possibly contribute. The challenge now seems to be convincing government to give me more time to pay. We’ll see how that goes.
By the end of the summer I expect to meet the new fuel tank permit demands and the new Fire Safety demands. Then we can turn attention to wastewater management, shoreline development, and other unresolved issues.
Baysave is registered as a New Jersey charity and a federal 501(c)(3) organization. The primary purpose of this registration is to make it easy to raise funds for environmental stabilization and economic development from members of the community. Without these filings, we might be required to meet crowdfunding rules for small businesses that are more onerous.
The State of New Jersey requires and annual filing for small charities called a CRI-200. This year, in 2018, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs is switching from a paper-based filing system to an electronic online filing system. The transition is causing confusion and delays for many of the state’s non-profits. Additionally, changes in our own leadership and personnel have caused a temporary drop to only one available signer for the charity. The state requires two signers on all charity filing documents. This caused Baysave to be temporarily listed as “deficient” status in the online charities registration directory.
As a result, Baysave must resubmit amended annual charity filings with two signatures for 2013, 2016 and 2017. We expect to make that amendment now and thereby address the deficiency.
Today is the scheduled hearing in New Jersey Superior Court for the state’s motion to show cause in State of New Jersey vs. Novak, et. al. Following is a summary of my defense:
STATE OF NEW JERSERY VS. NOVAK, ET. AL.
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT AGAINST MOTION FOR ORDER TO SHOW CAUSE
by Tony Novak, Controller, Baysave Association
1) This is a case of government behaving badly. The state is asking for a court order after having unilaterally broken two agreements with Novak over the past six years after Novak performed in good faith. Then they denied three separate requests for problem resolution in the past year where all of the parties could have sat down and worked on a solution. The state is not entitled to behave this badly and then come into Superior Court to enlist legal muscle in its actions.
2) This is an unreasonable request. There is a coalition of government agencies, private businesses, nonprofit agencies and industry leaders – more than 20 in all – working on the sustainable and fully compliant redevelopment and compliance of Money Island Marina. Collectively, we have more than 70 active community redevelopment projects under development with more than 30 of them including land use permitting. It is unreasonable to think that any one person or entity can bring the transformation to a sustainable environmental future for this community, let alone develop those plans within a 30-day time frame requested by the state. Novak does not have the legal authority or capability to act unilaterally to take the actions requested.
3) The facts are in dispute. The state’s filed complaint and supporting certifications are so riddled with errors that it is impossible for us to know what the prosecution intends. We need a process – whether ongoing community-based planning, alternate dispute resolution process or discovery in this ongoing legal action – to determine the facts in this matter.
4) The admitted responsible parties are not involved yet. In this same Superior Court, before the same Judge, during questioning under oath, another person testified about her willingness to accept the legal and financial responsibility for the NJDEP violations to these properties. We expect that the responsible parties and local government will step forward but the legal process is expected to take another one to two years. It will likely take even longer for government to act on its already approved resolutions that will address compliance issues.
5) Other parties were not notified. It appears that all pre-hearing notices were sent to Novak’s home address in Money Island New Jersey despite notification that the other parties are not here. Novak is the only resident of the western half of Money Island and there is no indication that any other parties are aware of the State’s legal action. The state is required to make reasonable efforts notify parties before it takes legal action against them.
6) No environmental damages. The prosecution has presented ZERO evidence of any environmental damage or immediate threat to the environment. We have a stellar reputation and track record for best operating practices and environmental test results. What they are saying is that their paperwork trail wasn’t documented for decades, and internal management process has been flawed for many years before any of us were on the scene. A failure on their part does not equate to a crisis on my part. We all agree on the goal of working toward full land use compliance under new regulations that the NJDEP admits are not even promulgated yet. But this ‘crisis action’ and legal threats are not the way to do it.
7) A new master compliance plan of action is already underway. The NJDEP Acting Director of Coastal Land Use Planning has already announced the department’s intention to “work closely with this Money Island project to promulgate new regulations that are effective for the bayshore region of Cumberland County”, per our mayors in the past month. Last week the news was released that our new NJDEP Commissioner’s Office had fast-tracked and approved funding for the #1 environmental entanglement: public sewer systems for the nearby towns. We know that we will be included in the next phase and that all parties are working as quickly as possible. There is no need for this current legal action and, in fact, the legal action is slowing down the progress toward full compliance by causing some key stakeholders to remain uninvolved until after the legal action is resolved.
The government-created “disaster after the disaster” continues to dominate our lives. Virtually all government cooperation is still lacking at this point five and a half years after Sandy.
We have recently crossed the five and a half year mark since superstorm Sandy devastated our community and much of the damage has not yet been repaired. Fraud, mismanagement and red tape within the government systems that administer post-Sandy rebuilding programs are mostly to blame. We have plans and funding ready now but lack government approval to proceed. Many of the local people who initiated the “No retreat – Save the bayshore communities” campaign have sold their properties and moved out over the past year. Those who remain are deeply entrenched in a battle with government to negotiate a plan for recovery and sustainability.
Some of the issues that specifically hamper Money Island, New Jersey recovery are:
- New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance declined to investigate sales practices of insurance companies that sold inappropriate and inadequate coverage.
- The National Flood Insurance Program admitted fraud and mismanagement in handling flood insurance claims but continued to deny payment on those claims anyway. Policyholders have been forced to settle for lesser amounts or give up die to high legal costs of pursuing their claim in court.
- Most recovery programs were denied to homeowners and businesses on the New Jersey bay shore region. We read that 98% of all post-Sandy Small Business Administration loan applications were denied.
- Almost all of the applications, pre-application meetings and project proposal applications for post-Sandy recovery work at Money Island have been denied.
- The Trump administration announced the removal of funds promised and approved by Congress for post-Sandy mitigation programs. Citizen activists like me believe that the Trump action is retaliatory against east coast states like New York and New Jersey that are suing Trump and his government in multiple actions. Both of our New Jersey Senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, as well as our Congressman Frank LoBiondo and other states’ Senators, opposed the move and sent a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asking for a one year extension for projects that are underway but not yet complete. The letter is part of a bipartisan effort of Congress to keep the projects funded because we have simply not had enough time to meet all the rebuilding requirements.
- On June 8, 2018 the Trump administration reversed course and announced that it will not pull back previously approved funds.
- On Monday June 11, 2018 when NJ activist Doug Quinn addressed FEMA administrator Brock Long about specific policy provisions at the National Flood Conference in Washington, DC on Monday to address the Congressman’s’ letter this week, NFIP administrator Brok Long said “I’m not going to answer that”, then shut down the meeting to questioning and walked off the stage. Quinn later wrote that the event “was a learning experience. We have no friends there”.
- On the same day, June 11, 2018, at the public meeting of Downe Township Committee mayor Bob Campbell said that FEMA officials admit that post-Sandy projects they intend to see completed are still incomplete here in our township. There was no discussion of a timetable for the federally funded projects.
- Last month the New Jersey Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Tony Novak and others for failure to make progress on post-Sandy recovery despite the track record of more than ten applications and pre-application proposals to do so.
Given the history of what we call “the disaster after the disaster” I am not optimistic about any immediate change in government’s role in our future recovery. We will continue to push for our recovery and long term sustainability at a grass roots level for years to come. We are able to rebuild under the various regional and local recovery plans but we need government permission and cooperation to do so. We also need funding for those aspects of the recovery projects that benefit the public interest rather than just private businesses and homeowners. Virtually all government cooperation is still lacking at this point five and a half years after Sandy.
I anticipate at least two more years will be required to settle existing litigation and appeals and then return to the process of rebuilding. The legal battles are a waste of time and money that only enrich the lawyers on both sides but we don’t think that it is likely that government will act responsibly or come to our aid anytime soon.