Thanks LoBiondo for environmental support

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Congressman Frank LoBiondo has been a strong supporter of the Delaware Bay region, our environment and our businesses. This photo was taken on his recent visit to Money Island in August 2016 where he spoke about the difficulty in promoting our environmental interests in Washington. His efforts are largely responsible for the EPA-funded restoration projects here.

This week NJ.com recognizes LoBiondo as one of only a few Republican leaders nationwide willing to stand up to the to repeal environmental restrictions on the coal industry.

Earlier in 2016 the Congressmen met with me and a group of other concerned residents still fighting to settle Sandy insurance claims years after FEMA fraud admissions.

I am grateful for Congressman LoBiondo’s efforts and feel blessed to have him represent us in Washington DC.

Mid-Atlantic oil and gas drilling update

Puzzled by recent news about Mid-Atlantic oil and gas news? I am. The dramatic swings in position in the past decade have been difficult to follow. News reports say that today’s action by President Obama stabilize the situation for the foreseeable future and squelch offshore drilling here. Some reports say that today’s action may survive as the longest-lived impact of Obama’s presidency.

This article on Sierra Club’s web site does a good job explaining the progress on the issue up until March of this year. At that time it appeared that the administration supported offshore energy exploration here.

The bottom line seems to be that we won’t hear more about offshore drilling here on the mid-Atlantic coast. I am skeptical. We’ve gone to great lengths and pains to support our addiction to oil and gas. Only time will tell.

Agonizingly slow aquaculture progress

For the past eight years I have been working through nonprofit BaySave Corporation on necessary reforms to New Jersey’s outdated land use and aquaculture regulations with embarrassingly little result. During that time we’ve watched Virginia, Maryland and now Delaware soar past us in this blossoming industry that is crucial to a sustainable future here on the Delaware Bay.

In 2010 BaySave became the target of a NJDEP cease and desist order for oyster restoration research and then in 2015 and continuing into this year became the target of local township’s prosecution on Certificate of Occupancy law for our use of a bankrupt marina property as a nonprofit aquaculture co-op operation in Money Island while we are waiting for necessary government permits. This is surprising based on the strong degree of support expressed by state and federal elected officers and their staff. There is no debate about how powerful aquaculture could be in restoring our local economy. The $20 million annual seafood crop coming from Money Island could increase by tenfold with appropriate government cooperation.

At the pace we are moving, I won’t live long enough to see Money Island established as the hub of aquaculture development here in the state. Yesterday I received this email from the well-respected government relations specialist and political lobbyist for the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants:

“Tony, it sounds to me like you are doing almost everything humanly possible to move this issue forward. Very often, stupid regulations are simply never removed, despite the need for it. All I can suggest is that you stay in touch with Van Drew and that you forward your concerns about these regulations to the NJ Red Tape Review Commission. One other thing you might try is to get more people to write to the Governor on this issue. There is strength in numbers and ultimately all rules are repealed or initiated with the input of the Governor”.

I am already working with State Senator Van Drew, the Governor’s office and the Red Tape Commission (through a peer CPA who is a member of the commission) but have not tried to organize any mass public appeal directly to the governor’s office. Perhaps that is something I need to learn next.

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NJDEP liens from prior property owners

I spent about an hour on Friday with a NJDEP official from the Bureau of Tidelands Management. There are vague stories that the prior owners of Money Island Marina did not pay the tidelands lease fees since the 1970s. What I do know is that when the prior owner emerged from the most recent bankruptcy, the NJDEP placed a lien on the properties. The language of the property lien makes it clear that it s due to actions (or inactions) of prior owners and not the current owner. We have been so busy with emergency Sandy repairs for the last four years (that are being worked out still), that I have had no time to work on it until now.

We understand that there are three types of NJDEP violations and one open investigation on these properties. At this point, I have to start with just one of them. The immediate first goal is to quantify and begin the process of paying off the old tidelands lease fees.

So I’ve spent a few hours this week beginning work on this project. The next step may involve a trip to Trenton for some in-person discussion. I will post again as BaySave makes progress.

FEMA Sandy response: better late than never?

In yesterday’s mail I received a certified mail letter from FEMA, the Federal Management Emergency Administration, admitting that the agency found previously unconsidered documents related to my Sandy flood insurance claim made almost four years ago. The letter comes in response to my attorney’s request for information under the Freedom of Information Act made more than a year ago in August 2015.

FEMA had previously denied almost all of my flood insurance claim based on information that appeared to me to be either entirely fictitious or perhaps someone else’s property. The case information that I saw bore no resemblance to my property and the photographs and notes that I saw the claim examiners make on site in my presence in late 2012 and early 2013.

The letter dated September 30, 2016, received October 8, 2016, says: “This letter is to inform you that the National Flood Insurance Program has located additional documents regarding your NFIP claim file”. FEMA now admits they have 381 pages about my claim in their case file but will only release 347 pages.  FEMA is apparently refusing to release 34 pages apparently based on “Exemption 6 to the Freedom of Information Act on the basis that these pages would create an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. I presume this might include personnel issues within FEMA and their contractors involved in the screw-up but this is only my speculation. I don’t know enough about this topic to comment further.

My cabin (rear) and BaySave office (front) prior to Sandy.
My cabin (rear) and BaySave home office (front) prior to Sandy.

After all insurance and aid requests were denied, I began slowly repairing the cabin as time and money allow. The cabin was low priority because I made the aquaculture facility and infrastructure repairs my my primary focus. We had to rebuild basic support like the marina community’s water system and electric service. I have only repaired about 1/2 of the damaged items and the most expensive issues remain unresolved. The external walls look OK now, but the roof, underside and waste water system still need repair or replacement. Even it the claim were settled in full today, my legal expenses would consume at least half of that amount.

Red Tape Review Commission

I have a new opportunity to communicate with a peer accountant who serves on the Governor’s Red Tape Review Commission. This is my attempt to put together some notes for the discussion:

Red tape #1: Aquaculture stalemate

The goal: We envision Money Island as the future soft shell crab capital of the Delaware Bay. Our crab shedding operation is modeled after those in Tangier’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay. We are poised to expand when appropriate. Tangier’s Island in Virginia currently boasts the title “soft shell capital of the world” with substantial revenue to its local rural community. We believe that Money Island has the natural resources to be just as successful in this specialized niche of food production.

Current status: Soft shell crab production requires two licenses from the state of New Jersey: a crab harvesting license and an aquaculture license. We have the state-issued aquaculture license #00119 issued March 9, 2012. The physical facilities for the shedding operation are complete but currently idle waiting for the state-controlled harvesting license.

The red tape problem:  Different state agencies handle the aquaculture license than the harvesting license. The state apparently lost my application for a crab harvesting licence and feels no compulsion to expedite our license application now. I recently confirmed that it was submitted to the local shellfisheries office ant they have a copy of the application, but it was apparently lost in transit to the state office. Without that license, we have no supply of crabs to put into the shedding tank system.

The common sense solution: The issuance of a NJ crab shedding aquaculture license should be automatically paired with a crab harvesting license since both are required together to run an operation.

My request: Issue me a crab harvesting license.

Red Tape #2: Abandoned real estate

The goal: Return financially and physically “underwater” real estate at Money Island to the tax paying roles to allow us to attract new investors for sustainable redevelopment.

Current status: The majority of our real estate at Money Island is now underwater due to sea level rise. Thee mostly underwater properties have little market value yet are assessed and taxed at much higher values. These properties were abandoned in the prior owner’s bankruptcy and remain in tax default today. Current tax liens exceed the market value. The local municipality was unable to sell the tax liens. Additionally, the NJDEP issued its own separate liens shortly after Superstorm Sandy saying the properties lacked appropriate permitting dating back at least 40 years. Even furthermore, the Office of Community Affairs issued fines for building code violations during Superstorm Sandy repairs. The collective amount of debt now attached to the properties far exceeds their projected future value. As a result, nobody wants to own the land and assume these liabilities. In 2012 I offered the land as a gift to the state as part of a 20 acre gift/sale involving multiple owners. Last month, in July 2016, the NJDEP verbally declined interest in the properties. Now we are trying to find a way to clear the old deb to allow for new economic redevelopment.

The Red Tape Problem: According to a number of experts at PlansmartNJ, OpporunityNJ and representatives from the New Jersey League of Municipalities, NJCPA and others who have reviewed the situation, no legal means exists under current state law to bring the properties “up to zero” so that we can encourage new investors.

The Common Sense Solution:  An executive order could be used to waive the old liabilities to bring the properties back to zero value and then reassessed back to taxpaying status.

My Request: Use an executive order to clear the old debts on these mostly underwater properties so we can begin to rebuild a working waterfront business community with normal real estate status.

Red tape #3: Governmental infighting hurts us

The Goal: Implementation of the Cumberland County Long Term Recovery Plan for Money Island as agreed by all stakeholders and by all levels of government.

Current Status: Our Sandy flood insurance claim remain unpaid and are still in review status. FEMA admits fraud in altering the engineering reports of the wastewater system damage but has not moving forward to resolve our open claim. Cumberland County Health Department government is pushing for system repairs before the insurance claim is settled. The township building officer declines to issue building permits until the wastewater system is installed. Funding is not yet available for many planned infrastructure projects including well water permitting, bulkhead construction, wet-proof flood construction, boat ramp extension, channel dredging,  wastewater handling and processing, large vessel working waterfront reconstruction. We simply need more time to rebuild under these extraordinary challenging conditions.

The Red Tape Problem: None of these events are under our control. Yet we bear the risk and the ongoing cost of legal defense of the multiple assaults by government during the recovery period.

My Request: An executive order to pause prosecution of property owners at Money Island for pre-existing conditions until intergovernmental dispute issues are resolved and reconstruction is complete.

Time to rethink the basis of environmental regulation

“You only have power over people as long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything, he’s no longer in your power — he’s free again”. – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

For all of our modern times, government has regulated environmental organizations with a combination of threats, intimidation, and fines. Overall, this system has been pretty effective in mooting the possibilities of most types of innovation and environmental improvement. Environmentalists with visions of improving their world are routinely knocked back into mundane roles through such government enforcement actions. We’ve seen several examples here in the New Jersey in recent years, even from the most powerful environmentalists in organizations like the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, The Nature Conservancy and Rutgers University.

About a decades ago residential and business property owners in our own community began reporting that NJDEP officials were demanding payment of ‘offset credits’ simply because sea level rise had changed the nature of their structures from dry land to above water. This form of action is viewed by some local property owners as legalized government extortion. Government’s reaction to sea level rise has changed the fundamental possibility of future use of shorefront properties. Many of the properties here used to be 100% on dry ground in the 1950s are now 70% below the water line. Values have fallen dramatically and most owners are underwater financially as well as physically. This enforcement action effectively put a halt to our plans to open a nature observatory at Money Island. The costs of compliance extracted by government are simply too high to allow for shoreline development of non-profit ventures like a nature observatory.

Then in 2010 NJDEP Commissioner engaged in a battle against oyster reef restoration efforts including our own at Money Island. While some projects were relocated, ours were simply abandoned. We don’t have the manpower to relocate and we really need the living shoreline restoration efforts here. Likewise, we’ve faced resistance on dune restoration and it has been difficult or impossible to get permits for living shoreline restoration. In 2015 a group pf environmental organizations teamed up to push permitting through for some projects. But these are largely experimental projects; not the type of proven shoreline stabilization techniques that we badly need to implement sooner rather than later.

Lately I’ve been engaged in a battle to bring properties up to standards in modern wastewater handling. The local and county governments have a solid plan to bolster wastewater treatment facilities but that pan is not moving fast enough to satisfy the NJDEP. Instead of pushing and helping government implement their plans, the state has allowed the NJDEP to threaten property owners instead.

In 2014 the NJDEP issued a dubious water test report that was later admitted to be faulty in design and execution by its authors. The intent of the report was to prove that the septic systems of certain human residences were polluting the bay. The not-so-hilarious thing was that the report singled out specific abandoned homes with photographic evidence to support its conclusion. In fact, there is no such proof and dozens of other water test results before and after show bacteria level at normal expected and acceptable levels. Still homeowners are feeling the pressure because the cost of compliance often exceeds the value of their shore front homes. Some of these owners donated their properties to BaySave for the purpose of transmittal to the state or to find a resolution. I work with many levels of government and private enterprises and conclude that there is no immediate solution to bring government and residents into compromise. This is where the story gets more disturbing.

The NJDEP now sends letters threatening fines of up to $50,000 per day to these low-income and mostly unsophisticated local residents. I pointed out to the state officials that these residents are already financially ruined by sea level rise, have no other assets or income and that they have been praying for the state to take possession of their property or relocate them to offshore locations. The state offered to buy their houses for $20,000 to $30,000 but that’s not enough to pay off their existing mortgage debt let alone leave money to allow them to buy another home. These residents have no financial ability to comply and no reason to fear additional fines. Their properties are worthless (based on value less mortgage less taxes) and, for the most part, have not been occupied since superstorm Sandy. Some of the best minds in New Jersey’s think tanks – the NJ Bar Association, The NJ League of Municipalities, NJCPA, NJ Plansmart, for example –  have volunteered their help on this issue but have been unable to come up with a solution. It is unreasonable to expect NJ’s property owners to do this on their own,

In BaySave’s case, the NJDEP and various other government agencies have already issued fines, levies, liens and taxes that far exceed the property’s value. All of this happened long before we were involved. Volunteer efforts are focused on digging our way our of the hole to reestablish a sustainable shorefront resource for the community. That’s how BaySave came to own the properties; the previous owners simply couldn’t handle these government aggressions either from a financial or psychological perspective and they recognized that we stood a better shot at success. Some owners have chosen to make their donation public by filing the deed. Most have not, and prefer to keep their financial affairs private. If these owners do have other assets, they fear that these might be at risk if the New Jersey government chose to pursue prosecutions of alleged environmental violations. The smart decision was simply to donate their properties to an environmental organization. I expect these types of property donations will continue to come as long as government makes threats without offering viable solutions. We agree that the problem is financial but that’s as far as we get. I want to talk financial solutions while the NJDEP wants to continue to talk fines and enforcement.

My point is that in the past environmental regulation was based on a premise that property owners had something to lose. Now that a growing number of waterfront properties in New Jersey will have no net economic value, we need to rethink the strategy. The abandonment of property is a real and growing problem. Partnering with, rather than threatening environmental organizations is the path we need to follow.