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Creative Financing Removes New Jersey Residents from Harm

WAYNE, NJ - The Hoffman Grove neighborhood along the Pompton River began as a summer recreation area used for camping, boating, and swimming around the turn of the 20th century. Families typically traveled by train from the crowded cities to the then rural Wayne Township where Hoffman Grove is located.

A core group of vacationers formed an association, and the area slowly transformed from a campground to a few rows of summer homes. In the 1920s and 1930s, as the Township began to grow, these summer homes were converted to year-round dwellings. However, Hoffman Grove is situated along the Pompton River, about mid-point in the Passaic River basin, surrounded on three sides by the Pompton River, and separated from adjacent neighborhoods by a New Jersey Transit commuter line. It became more and more subject to flooding as the watershed was developed during the second half of the 20th century. The railroad track embankment acts as a levee and restricts the flow of flood water to the entire floodway, increasing the floodwater depth in the Grove.

Hoffman Grove is a 116-home community that has been subjected to 14 major and 13 moderate flood events in the last 40 years, resulting in loss of life and severe repetitive property loss. Whenever there is the threat of moderate to severe flood event, swift water rescue teams and other support personnel and equipment are mobilized to assist in voluntary and emergency evacuation, as needed. Wayne Township Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Director Sandy Galacio said currents can run as swiftly as eight knots, in waters that hide mailboxes, sheds, vehicles, and fences—all which pose danger to a rescue boat’s propeller. In swift water, when propulsion is lost, the lives of all aboard the craft are in jeopardy.

When preliminary meetings to consider a home buyout mitigation program were held with Hoffman Grove property owners in 2005, there was skepticism.

“Owners and tenants alike seemed united in their mistrust of the government to make good on promises” said Galacio. At the meeting, a creative funding package was proposed that included the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, state flood mitigation assistance, and the Department of Environmental Protection-Green Acres program.

About a third of those who attended these meetings became convinced that local, state, and FEMA officials were sincere in their concern for the welfare of the community. Property owners who were interested in participating in the volunteer buyout program began to fill out the necessary waivers, and the first round of acquisitions became a viable project -- 34 homes were purchased in 2006.

After talking with their neighbors, many of those homeowners who had been skeptical of the buyouts during round one anxiously signed up for the second acquisition. There were another 37 homes purchased in 2009 for a total of 71 homes during the first two rounds.

As the most vulnerable neighborhood in Wayne Township’s local floodway, Hoffman Grove continues to be a priority. Galacio said he continues to actively pursue a property acquisition that removes residents and first responders from harm’s way and returns floodway property to its natural water-absorbing state.

Officials also say that Wayne Township is now eager to participate in any program that results in reduced exposure to the residents and first responders during flood events.