SAYREVILLE, N.J. - About 350 homeowners in the central New Jersey towns of Sayreville and South River whose properties have flooded repeatedly will be eligible to sell their homes in the first phase of a new federally funded buyback program, Gov. Christie announced Thursday.

Christie returned to Sayreville, which was heavily flooded during Hurricane Sandy, to announce the $300 million buyback. The money will be enough to buy back nearly 1,000 homes in targeted communities along the Raritan River, Passaic River basin, and the Jersey Shore. The homes that the government buys will be razed and the property maintained as wetlands to help protect against future floods. The program is voluntary.

A second round of funding is expected in September, Christie said. It will allow the program to expand to other flood-prone areas. Woodbridge was one community mentioned, where 200 willing homeowners have already applied.

Christie said the Environmental Protection Department would target clusters of homes or whole neighborhoods, not individual homes, so neighbors might need to get together, perhaps throw a party, to persuade holdouts in the target zone to go along.

"I think you know what I'm saying," the governor told the capacity crowd at an elementary school. "Use the gentle persuasion that New Jerseyans are known for to get things going."

Property appraisals will begin in June, the governor said. Offers to willing sellers will start in July, and all closings will happen within a year. Christie did not say how much homeowners would be offered other than that they would be given "fair value."

The buyout program will begin with about 350 eligible properties in Sayreville and South River.

Sayreville, surrounded by the Raritan River, Raritan Bay, and the South River in Middlesex County, was among the first towns Christie visited after Sandy in late October. About 270 homes in the town were destroyed or severely damaged, and a wastewater pumping station was wrecked.

Christie said that when he toured the wreckage, devastated homeowners told him, "Get us out of here. We can't take it anymore."

"When the folks of New Jersey tell you that, you have to listen," Christie said.

On the other hand, no one will be forced to sell and no community will be required to participate.

"It's up to these communities to make the tough decisions on whether to sell or rebuild," DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said.

The decision is personal and emotional for people "who were decimated by Sandy and may have also suffered damage in previous storms, but who still love where they live," he said.

Christie, who wore a trademark fleece jacket in the days after Sandy, was presented with a fleece Thursday by Elaine Konopka, who attended the town hall. She said she was "really appreciative" of the governor's efforts in the aftermath of the storm.

The buyback will be part of the state's Blue Acres program, which was established more than 15 years ago to buy lands in the Delaware, Passaic and Raritan River basins.

Homeowners seeking information about the buyout process may call the DEP's Blue Acres program at 609-984-0500.