Four years after storm Jonas

This week marks four years since winter storm Jonas that brought the most severe flooding in New Jersey in our lifetime. I’ve read anecdotal comments that New York City was “shut down”, and that almost all of Ocean City was flooded.

Here at Money Island almost all of our land was underwater on January 23, 2016. The depth of water at our highest points was astounding. Our marina work truck, a 1984 Ford 350, was parked just outside Bruce’s trailer. It barely escaped being ruined. My elevated tool shed flooded for the first time and so I elevated it further and built an access ramp the following spring.

We know that it will happen again. I feel a little better prepared each time. We still have preparations to make: a ramp of last resort and more elevated vehicle parking. Yet I have the confidence to say that storm flooding will not be a major impediment to the sustainability of Money Island for the remainder of my life. The only real threat remaining after the removal of the majority of residents is government. Government’s actions or inactions in preserving the road and litigating again property owners of partially flooded lots will determine our future.

No people

I am planning a meeting with a regional business incubator next week. One main point to convey is that one of our main challenges at the bayshore is a lack of people. Because of their setup, they should have access to a much larger human resource market.

I’ve been counting the cars at Money Island lately. Now that a few more neighbors have moved out we are down to only about one car per day on a weekday and 3-4 on weekends along the western coastline.

This photo was taken it fall. It looks much less colorful now.

Aquaculture crawls forward

It was a busy week at Money Island but that doesn’t mean that an outcome is any more clear. I see competing and conflicting interests that will eventually clash. Meanwhile, I head two independent confirmations of ongoing investment here.

The state is planning more oyster aquaculture training in Trenton in early 2020. I was asked to help prepare an invitation list.

One local business wants to expand crabbing and processing here again. I agreed to help with the marketing, but had a conversation with Division of Fish and Wildlife to avoid being caught in our antiquated laws again. Current law says that a marketing consultant can be prosecuted for not having fisheries industry catch records, even if the marketer did not sell any product.

Meanwhile, roadway erosion control work continues, but apparently not in coordination with the oyster industry. This just seems odd and inefficient.

Finding a new strategic plan

In this first week of December I am settling into a regular pattern again after a month of chaos from the move. Not that the chaos is ended, it just that I can clear a half day now to focus on strategic goals.

The immediate plan is to meet and interview people in my new hometown. I’m focused on identifying people who are aware that they can make a difference in the future of their community. What I’m finding, so far, is that I need a more effective approach to convince them to break their routine and talk with me.

Also, Sebastian, my business coach, alerted me this week that my interview technique is pretty much terrible. I figure it will improve with learning and experience; mostly the latter.

Overall, I’m not happy with the pace of this project and today thinking about how I can ‘pick up the pace’. That phrase immediately triggers thoughts of college coaching when that same phrase was used again and again to propel our wrestlers to higher levels of performance. It was clearly a Pavlovian response and appears to still be powerful with me today. It worked once to raise our performance to record setting national championships. Can I harness that power again?

At this point the four step objective of this project is clear:

1. Meet the influentials.

2. Ask about their priorities and goals.

3. Learn about their recent successes and make note of the techniques.

4. Ask about their ongoing struggles, unmet needs and look for patterns that might indicate opportunities for new economic solutions.

Once I’ve collected feedback from at least a dozen people then I will be in a better position to take the next steps to develop a new business plan for myself.

Which door leads to the best path forward?

Sometimes you just gotta do what’s right (update on environmental activism at the bayshore)

“Sometimes you just gotta do what’s right inside and hope that maybe the rest of the world will come around to it. And maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but the truth is, you gotta take care of yourself first,“ – Elizabeth Warren, talking about her own life at a campaign rally, December 1, 2019. Perhaps the strongest statement made in this campaign to date.

Today I finished paying off my legal costs resulting from environmental justice activism in rural southwest New Jersey over this past year. It’s been financially devastating; the lawyers’ costs, court costs, fines. Some, including a judge, have admonished me to keep quiet and stay offline with my social media projects. We are aware that government trolls this web site and presumably all of my activism. The prosecutor for the New Jersey Attorney General said “stop breaking the law” as if I had personally created any of the disasters we face today. The past president of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants wrote today in reply to my latest editorial “Come on man!”, apparently ignorant of the real life challenges we face as a result of systematic discrimination under the status quo. A New Jersey elected official threatened me at a public meeting in response to a published editorial critical of government a few months ago.

These comments from prominent community members tell me that they have no clue that this is only the beginning of a movement of peaceful lawbreaking protests against environmental injustice against so many in the lower echelon of the economy. No matter what the cost, backing down, keeping quiet and following the law is not an option. State governments will continue to increase prosecutions against environmental activists, whether they are marching in the street like these protestorsor trying to develop sustainable rural communities like me.

To add insult to injury, there is no indication that any of my attention-getting efforts have resulted in any form of economic development or new opportunities for our community. Nobody I know, from our local Cumberland County elected leaders (Derella and other freeholders) all the way up to the governor’s office, has a viable plan to address continued environmental injustice issues here at the bayshore1, 2. It’s just outside of their scope. Local mayors and business leaders do have viable ideas but lack the financial clout to get it done. My support of a proposed New Jersey State bank drew much criticism lately; many (mostly Republicans) are opposed to the wealth treasure mechanism that moves investment capital to riskier but socially supported projects.

In the end, I just have to do what I know is right, and hope that the rest of the world comes around to it. At this time, it’s the only ethical option.

Tony Novak, environmental activist with Baysave, the target of multiple New Jersey prosecutions in 2019


Footnotes:

1Governor Murphy launched an environmental justice exploratory project by executive order in early 2019 I’ve entered written and oral public testimony as part of that project (covered in my other blogs) and I made multiple requests for follow-up conversation but have had no response to my communications.

2People often suggest approaching federal government with environmental justice concerns. I do maintain good working relationships with our current (VanDrew) and former (LoBiondo) Congressman and both US Senators (Booker and Menendez), both individually and through grassroots PACs. But I find that the federal government has relatively little role in the environmental justice issues that affect us locally. These are primarily state government controlled issues.

Why New Jersey aquaculture is stalled

New Jersey aquaculture

Doing some late night browsing I noticed some news from other states on progress in aquaculture projects in other locations and confirming my observation that New Jersey’s aquaculture development is stalled. The industry appears to be moving ahead in virtually every other seaboard state, including Delaware to our south and New York to our north.

In fact, there has been no substantive progress in fish farming here in New Jersey since the publication of the state’s “Guide to Developing Aquaculture in New Jersey” in 2003. Shellfish farming has advanced at the eastern shore but is monopolized and strangled by the political process here on the bayshore.

Current NJ aquatic farmer license

Since I first became a licensed NJ aquatic farmer in 2012, the state of New Jersey has taken these specific actions to stall our aquaculture business at Money Island:

  1. Failed to implement license transfer procedures approved by the state legislature that would allow idle fishing licenses to be transferred to another person.
  2. Failed to issue a crab harvesters license to anyone associated with our landing port.
  3. Shut down community-based oyster gardening programs that are thriving in other states to raise public awareness and support of shellfish sustainability.
  4. Closed most of the commercial docks by court order.
  5. Denied Sandy recovery funding.
  6. Sued for land use permits missing since the 1970s.
  7. Published a deliberately false water quality report even after its author admitted to its faults.
  8. Denied a NJ SeaGrant wastewater processing permit application.
  9. Denied a Zane land use application for redevelopment of the aquaculture center infrastructure.
  10. Closed the community’s only public toilet facility (forcing visitors to go in the bushes; a practice unsafe and incompatible to aquaculture).
  11. Denied a major seafood company’s pre-permit request for site review for a new aquaculture facility.
  12. Closed the crab shedding business by court order.
  13. Prosecuted me for the new aquaculture association’s online marketing program despite me having no personal connection with crab sales.
  14. Prosecuted me for stolen fishing equipment that was discovered more than a year later to be used illegally despite me having no connection with the equipment after the reported theft.

In short, the state has done just about everything possible to cause our aquaculture industry to fail, yet the watermen here persist and continue to push forward.

Money Island is the state’s second most productive seafood landing port. This year the investment in commercial infrastructure has growing at an unprecedented pace. Seafood landings are increasing. Commercial docks prices are rising. The number employed here has increased. Yet state government appears to be determined to do everything in its power to destroy the local aquaculture economy.

I’ve personally met or talked with lawmakers at all levels: Senator Booker, Senator Menendez, former Congressman LoBiondo, Congressman and former State Senator Van Drew, State Senator Andrzejczak, Assemblyman Land, several former state senators, most of our county freeholders, our county economic development officer, our local mayor and a fisheries industry consultant. All agree that the number of people inside NJ state government opposed to our aquaculture plans is small. We recognize that just a handful of bureaucratic naysayers is holding us back. Most acknowledge that they are aware that the state is using false information and sometimes even illegal tactics to stall local aquaculture. Yet I don’t sense that anyone has a plan to deal with these state government destructive forces.

Earlier this year, a trusted business associate told me that he was in recent personal contact with the Governor’s office to discuss this aquaculture problem that was holding up his company’s infrastructure investments. He was told that the Governor’s Office decided to not get involved with these matters that fall under the direction of the NJDEP’s Catherine McCabe. McCabe has visited Money Island recently, but she never stopped at the office nor has she responded to my calls.

Local mayor Bob Campbell and former Congressman Frank LoBiondo visiting Money Island.

Perhaps the most chilling memory of dealing with this problem is a one-one-one conversation I had with former Congressman Frank LoBiondo outside of our business. He had taken a tour of our living shoreline stabilization projects at Money Island and was waiting for a driver to pick him up. I had spoken with the Congressman before, both here in NJ and in his DC office. He was always formal and expressed restrained support under the circumstances. But on this day we had a few rare quiet minutes to talk alone with nobody else around. It was the most honest conversation I’ve ever had with a politician. I echoed my frustrations as listed above. He said “It’s the DEP, right?” He shook his head. “I hear it again and again. We’ve been unable to make any progress”. As I walked back include after he left, my heart sank. If he couldn’t make any progress with the state bureaucracy – even as a U.S. Congressman – then what hope did I have of solving these problems?

I have plenty of other ‘almost too hard to believe’ stories of the deliberate stalling of aquaculture here by a few state government officials. I hope that eventually I’ll be able to record those details in this blog.

We know that aquaculture industry has a bright future and will thrive in other areas under the spark of large international corporations. But the survival and future of small aquaculture businesses here at Money Island New Jersey remains very much in doubt.

A productive government meeting today

Today I had a meaningful and productive meeting in Bridgeton with two important and influential state officers. My purpose was to admit my uncomfortable position, admit past mistakes, and clear the air for better communications in the future. I said that I don’t know who I can trust and that makes me nervous. I also said that I really don’t know how things will work out for us at the bayshore. I still don’t see the big picture of what’s going on with state government and that’s not because I broke y reading glasses there. These officers deny knowingly collaborating with other officials but admit acting on “anonymous” sources. I’m skeptical that the sources are other agencies.

The meeting went well. I decided to not publicly name the officials. I also told them that I would not name others in the community that they wanted me to discuss. Balancing my goal of publicly documenting events vs. acting with good judgement to not disclose some details will continue to be a challenge for me.

First week at new winter office

Today I took a long walk down 2nd Street in Millville, New Jersey. I expect to be working in town all winter before returning to my bayshore office at Money Island in the spring. I took the two mile walk after a nonprofit accounting engagement that is not going well triggered an upset in my business plan this week. I blogged about that separately last night to blow off steam.

Downtown Millville is about half vacant. I didn’t actually count the closed storefronts but “half” is a solid estimate. I thought about other communications in my past in Pennsylvania that have rebounded from this downtown blight. I thought about the unique challenges facing this region of New Jersey. Those negative perceptions were reinforced when I stopped into the municipal office. I thought about all the business permit applications I’ve made in New Jersey: at least a dozen and only one of them approved. Financing attempts face similar results. More than a dozen applications submitted, only one approved. Then I thought about my most respected local business adviser who says “never be a victim” and so I immediately moved away from the negative thoughts.

I thought about how much time and money I wasted this year on idiotic government actions, including defending the multiple legal actions by four state agencies over government controlled business permits. I often think about what great progress could be made if we put that money and energy into rebuilding rather than fighting each other!

I stopped into an art exhibit at the Clay College that focused on social justice. “Build communities” logo in the window caught my attention. I feel like I do the same work as these artists, but as an accountant. I wonder how many people would see the connection.

I made two resolutions during the walk:

1) I will learn more about local redevelopment, and what is different between Millville and Vineland downtown. (Vineland is rebounding). I consider myself to be strong on small business development but all my recent experience is with rural communities. My distant past with Philadelphia SBDC and recent past interactions with Atlantic City SBDC and other similar organizations helps me see the potential. But I really don’t know enough to identify the problems with this downtown.

2) I will blog about “getting to know Millville” on a daily basis. I won’t include any names, but will document my progress in building collaborative business relationships.

 

The most important economic trend for small businesses

I now count 42 years of my life as a small business operator. The first one was a sweet corn farming operated conducted separately from my family and neighbors at age 17. Since then, I’ve had quite a range of small business experiences from an internet based technology company to soft shell crabs. That range of time and experience gives me some ability to look at the trends. The one overriding small business trend that I see over my lifetime is this:

The amount spent on productivity-related items has decreased while the amount spent on government-related items has increased.

I suspect this is a widespread trend but I also suspect that I’ve experienced it more than most and that’s why I’m writing about it. I’m not aware of much research in this area. I think that if I were to conduct organized research on a small business topic, this would be it.

By “amount” I mean the actual nominal dollar amount and the portion of gross income.

By “productivity-related”, I mean things like office rents, staff, software, hardware, training, tools and equipment.

By “government-related”, I mean things like taxes, permits, licenses, fines, legal fees and insurance (especially health insurance).

It is easy to conclude that this is not a healthy trend for small businesses.