Winding through the middle of Southampton Township is the Rancocas Creek, a 58.3-mile tributary of the Delaware River. Its three branches run quietly and serenely, fueling the nature around it and, in turn, hypnotizing home buyers searching for a slice of waterfront paradise.
“We thought we were going to live here forever,” said Orly Buday, who purchased a 3,000-square-foot home on the north branch of the creek with her husband, Larry Foster, in 2004. But the dark-brown cedar water that runs so peacefully one moment can quickly swell with fury the next, and overflow and ravage the homes around it in hours.
For Buday and Foster, that fury came most recently on June 20, when a storm and flash flood about 1 a.m. brought more than two feet of water into their home, leaving them, their two teenage children, and dozens of surrounding neighbors homeless.
“We weren’t ready for this,” said Buday as she walked on warped wooden floors and passed by walls with the first four feet of drywall knocked out. Repairs have been priced at more than $180,000 and the family is now renting a home in Shamong Township, increasing their monthly expenses by more than $2,500.
“But we weren’t surprised, either," said Foster. “We knew it was going to happen again at some point.”
This is the third time in 15 years that the Rancocas Creek has overflowed and damaged their home, a common occurrence for the approximately 54 Southampton families living along the creek. From dams breaking in 2004 to Hurricane Irene’s rains in 2011, residents are at wits’ end, exhausted by the floods’ financial and emotional toll. Now, they are asking the state for a way out.
Their solution may be the Blue Acres Buyout Program, an initiative by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection that offers to buy clusters of storm-damaged homes from residents in high-risk flooding areas at “pre-storm values." The program is voluntary, and once the home is purchased, it is demolished and the land becomes public open space.
Buday heard about the program after contacting the governor’s office and asking for help. Because the program prefers to buy clusters of homes, it’s best for communities to coordinate, so she started going door-to-door, leaving an application, a personalized letter, and her cell-phone number.
Her organizing efforts worked. Last week, more than 50 homeowners gathered at the Southampton Municipal Building to learn about Blue Acres from the program’s director, Fawn McGee. The township asked McGee to host the session after she met with residents from Lumberton Township, about 15 minutes up the road. Township leaders were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, including Mayor James Young, who said that Blue Acres may be a great option for homeowners.
About a dozen applications have been submitted by homeowners of Southampton and the surrounding area, according to the DEP, and Buday said 29 people said they would sell to the state when she walked around the area.
Denise Lees and her family are still enduring the June storm’s chaos. Chairs, lawnmowers, and wooden dressers litter their front yard, and three cars totaled by the flood sit in the driveway. There’s a hole in the middle of the kitchen floor where Lees fell though after the water ate away the wood. But she and her husband, Bill, and their 33-year-old son don’t have anywhere else to go. Now, they’re sleeping on air mattresses, surrounded by fans and dehumidifiers, and cook dinners with a hot plate.
Lees submitted her application to Blue Acres right away and said that if everything works in her favor, she’d love to move to Florida. “This is our best shot," she said with a shrug. “We can’t go through this again."
McGee said that she wants to create an express pilot program for the Southampton residents and others in nearby Burlington County communities, because typically the purchasing process can take one to two years. “This process still takes too long,” she said. “I want to see how fast we can help people."
Interested residents must submit an application and then the DEP reviews the properties. If the application is approved, an appraiser prices everything out, then creates contracts. McGee hopes that if residents move quickly, the DEP can start the purchases within a few months.
Last week’s meeting was the first time many Southampton residents had heard of the program — but Blue Acres is not new. It was established in 1995 as part of the Green Acres, Farmland, Blue Acres, and Historic Preservation Bond Act. But it wasn’t popular until after Hurricane Sandy destroyed hundreds of properties in 2012. This prompted then-Gov. Chris Christie to commit up to $300 million in 2013 to the program to purchase up to 1,000 homes in the coastal areas affected by Sandy and an additional 300 homes in flood-prone communities.
Today, the program has had 744 homeowners accept the offers, closing on 699 properties and demolishing 639.
Southampton Township was settled by Quakers in the late 1700s. Early development was not well-documented, but the first known piece of development along the Rancocas Creek was a sawmill in 1775. The creek’s location made the town a hub for milling, lumber, and tannery industries. A map from 1908 along the Rancocas shows dozens of homes and structures, and a 1940 photo of Vincentown, within Southampton Township, shows that floods have impacted this community for decades.
In addition to the 54 Southampton homes along the Rancocas Creek, there are about 39 in Pemberton Township, 82 in Eastampton, and 22 in Mount Holly, according to a Burlington County spokesperson.
Blue Acres has purchased only one home in Burlington County in the past. Across South Jersey, it has also made purchases in Downe and Lawrence Township in Cumberland County, and Pleasantville in Atlantic County, as well as North Jersey counties hard hit by floods and rising waters, including Middlesex, Monmouth, Union, Somerset, Essex, Bergen, and Passaic Counties.
The Southampton homeowners were told that their homes would be priced at their October 2012 value, and if they purchased the home after that time, it would be at current market value. The program also offers mortgage debt forgiveness. Yet, among these messages of hope, people still pleaded for help.
“It’s like a war zone out here. We want out,” said Terry Cassady, who lives in a house on Lenape Trail that has flooded four times since 2004. When the June storm hit, she and her 29-year-old son, Sean, and her boyfriend, Steve, used a canoe to escape the nearly six-foot-high waters outside.
Her home is now a shell of what it once was — dilapidated floors and missing drywall. Mold has taken over the ceilings. “Every time I come back to get something, it makes me nauseous,” she said. Cassady submitted her application to Blue Acres and the family is now staying with her mother.
“It’s beautiful on a dry day, but any day that it rains, we are scared to death. And it’s a nightmare to live like that.”