Should NJ buy out homes on contaminated properties?
It lacks a catchy name, like Green Acres for open space or Blue Acres for flood-prone properties, but New Jersey lawmakers are considering a new program requiring the state to purchase and knock down homes built on contaminated sites.
The Assembly voted 60-13 last month to create the program, which is scheduled for a vote Monday morning in the Senate Environment & Energy Committee. Its advocates say it would have limited but valuable impacts, while the Christie administration says it could cost the state budget millions of dollars.
The idea originates from a situation in Sayreville, where homes were built on Scott Avenue property that was seemingly safe because it used to house a toy store – but before that, had been home to a welding and ironworking shop where industrial tanks were cleaned with solvents then dumped into the ground.
The owner of the home where the contamination is most concentrated, Herve Blemur, lived at the property since the mid-1990s without realizing the problem. After the 2011 earthquake in Virginia that was felt in New Jersey, his basement would more frequently take on water. When he got the water tested in 2013, it showed unsafe levels of volatile organic compounds, such as tetrachloroethylene.
“My house has a cocktail of that. Now VOCs by their very nature is bad for you. Just one is bad. When you have four or five, that’s deadly,” Blemur said.
That seemingly explained the health issues experienced by the two youngest of his six children, the only two born when the Blemur family lived at that house, and a rare tumor that developed behind his wife’s cheek.
“Every time I’m going inside my home with my kids, I feel like I’m killing them slowly,” Blemur said.
State law requires the state to help resolve the contamination. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said around a half-million dollars has been spent so far – removing the soil and garage floor, digging wells and building a shed where the water is treated. That cost will continue to rise; the state pays the roughly $2,000 a month electric bill to operate the water treatment equipment.
There’s got to be a better approach for the state and impacted families, Wisniewski said.
“A home is a family’s largest single investment in most cases. The home that the Blemur family has invested in, put a down payment in, paid mortgage payments on – who would ever want to be the next owner? Nobody,” Wisniewski said. “A property that forever and a day will be known as a contaminated site and that no one will ever want to buy from him, and so he has an environmental dead end and a financial dead end.”
Wisniewski said part of the reason the remediation gets so pricey, and why buyouts would be better, is the effort needed to not undermine a home’s foundation.
“It adds a lot of expense. It’d be a lot simpler to buy the home, knock it down, cap the property and move on,” he said.
The bill would require the state to use money from its Spill Compensation Fund to buy single-family and two-family homes on contaminated sites, if the home’s soil and indoor air exceed safety standards for volatile organic compounds and the owner didn’t know about the contamination when buying it.
The offer would have to be the fair-market value for a home as if there wasn’t a contamination issue.
The state would then use money from the Spill Fund to knock the house down and remediate it for use as open space.
Property owners would have a year to request a buyout – either a year from the date the idea becomes law if they already know of the contamination, or a year from the date they discover the problem in the future. The DEP would have to make a buyout offer within 60 days.
The state Department of Environmental Protection told the Legislature the financial impact could be significant.
The DEP estimated that hundreds of property owners could request buyouts every year and said that could overwhelm the Spill Fund, which is projected to end the current fiscal year with a surplus $2.5 million. Any additional costs would then have to come from the state’s general budget.
Analysts from the Office of Legislative Services doubt hundreds of properties a year would qualify. But citing federal data showing the average single-family home in New Jersey as worth $397,500, OLS says the buyout of 40 homes would cost almost $16 million – and that’s without the costs for demolition or remediation.
Families like the Blemurs are suffering from “condemnation by contamination,” said New Jersey Sierra Club executive director Jeff Tittel.
“We also see it as another positive because at the end of the day you’re protecting a family, but you end up with open space without actually using open space money,” Tittel said.
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