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.

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.

“Lack of oversight”

Lack of oversight by Florida International University, the Florida Department of Transportation, contractors and engineers is to blame for the deadly collapse of a pedestrian bridge on the school campus in 2018, federal investigators said Tuesday.” – UPI 10/22/2019

The tragic story of the 2018 Florida bridge collapse in the news again today results in each party pointing the blame at another; nobody accepting responsibility for the failure. It reminds me that this is the same rotten behavioral pattern that we see here at Money Island with each government branch or agency and contractor denying responsibility for the overall failure of the oversight but pointing the finger at another. I guess that one of the sobering realities of being an ‘adult’ is that you cannot expect responsible ethical behavior out in the real world.

We don’t have any resulting deaths here yet. But in 2006 my criticism of government for lack of oversight that caused infrastructure failures resulted in death threats against me and eventually, years later, a grand jury indictment for attempted manslaughter planned by government. In the most recent developments, the State Attorney General is willing to blame and sue anyone – literarily “John Doe and Jane Doe” named as defendants in the AG’s active legal action here that closed the marina and hosted businesses – rather than accept responsibility by government itself.

I no longer hold out hope that government will be held accountable for it’s responsibilities, nor its contractors. But I do expect to tell the story so that the truth about environmental injustice at the bayshore is not forgotten.

Our “undocumented” neighbors

A few of our local people are “undocumented” but not in the common usage of the word. They have apparently chosen and managed to live with little government interaction.

The most memorable example of this was a peaceful old man who lived just a few doors away on a branch of Nantuxent Creek. He had a boat and a dock that he built himself. Remnants of the dock are still visible today. He made his living on the water but I wasn’t astute enough then to pay attention to those details. He was poor but not destitute. He did not stand out from any other neighbors in those years. I think that’s the main point.

I remember my NJ-born waterman neighbor, a black man, who died about 15 years ago (2002-2003) in his 80s (he didn’t know exactly how old he was) primarily because had no significant contact with government his whole life. Other seniors in this community remembered him as a child in Newport so his story checked out. But he had no social security card, had avoided the draft, never received medical care except a local doctor. He bragged that he never had a social security card. He drove but never had a drivers license, never paid income taxes, etc. He had a cabin on the water on property that he apparently did not own. (The cabin was almost completely over the water. This would not be permitted today but there was no government enforcement in those days).

I’ll likely remember his name at some future time. Part of the purpose of this blog is to record partial histories so that they are not lost and may later be pieced together. For now, I’m leaving all names out of this published story. The only other thing I remember about him was that he was the only neighbor not connected to the shared water well. I heard that the former well owner did not like him and that perhaps racism was a factor.

An officer from the sheriff’s office asked me about him years later after I presumed or heard that he died. He did not die here. I vaguely recall something about a woman. His cabin was deteriorated from storms at that time. His cabin remained closed up for many years and was eventually demolished by the new property owner. (The new property owner came from Sea Breeze and also died a few years later). I still have a few relics from the old cabin collected after the demolition. The only other thing at the site is a bulkhead that was partly reconstructed later.

The fact is that according to the “law” he was illegal, a lawbreaker, a criminal, undocumented. But to me he was an ordinary pleasant guy who just happened to live here in peace at this remote rural place of Money Island. I helped him occasionally, including once with a medical issue, although I don’t remember any other details.

We still have some people in this bayshore area who live with minimal outside contact. When our kids were young they imagined these neighbors to be fugitives with some dark secret. I’ve come to realize that they are just people who made a different lifestyle choice. The politics of this is heightened with the fear of local ICE raids. Continue reading “Our “undocumented” neighbors”

#WorldMentalHealthDay and environmental justice in New Jersey

Today is noted in news broadcasts as World Mental Health Day. In this past week I’ve had more discussions about mental health than is typical.

The book “The Drowning of Money Island” released October 1 talks about the nervous breakdown of the former business owner who is still one of my closest neighbors. I did not know about this detail until I read the book. I might have guessed the mental stress that came with their post-Sandy bankruptcy. The book also questions my mental status and decisions; a topic best saved for another post.

Two days ago I met with another neighbor, a business owner and engineer, who said that I looked much better now than the last time he saw me. At that time I was in the middle of two brutal legal attacks by the State of New Jersey. Like me, he is struggling to get by day to day. We talked about how the environmental justice struggles of the bayshore have taken a toll on our businesses, our physical health, the compound effect of loss of sleep, and the effect that stress has on deteriorating our marriages and family relationships. We did not directly discuss our own mental health concerns; it seems like just not a thing that guys do.

The main point is that it is not nature that is causing the mental stress around here. We can deal with storms, flooding and lack of fish. Unnecessarily cruel government antagonism, a complete lack of empathy, and sometimes outright criminal behavior is causing the mental stress here.

In the years following Superstorm Sandy I often wrote and spoke about the increase in mental illness, divorce and drug use in our community. It still breaks my heart that I never saw some friends again since the day before Sandy hit. I heard that one later committed suicide. I recall two public meetings where Cumberland County Health Department officials nodded agreement with my anecdotal observations but had little actual data to back these observations.

My observations, again and again, indicate that the increase in mental illness here is a direct result of failures of government to implement fair environmentally just policies. I brought this to the attention of the Governor’s office again this past year. I have yet to receive any acknowledgement of my letters, speeches, emails, calls or social media messages. I conclude that it’s not that the government isn’t getting the message but rather than our officials are deliberately avoiding addressing this difficult issue.

Lessons from “The Drowning of Money Island”

I read Andrew Lewis’ book “The Drowning of Money Island” today. I am reminded that we can learn in at least three different ways from a documentary book like this. I did; and I’ll likely have many The learning aspects are amplified, of course, since I’m reading partly about my own story.

First, I benefited from reading the things I already know. Seeing familiar facts laid out in a book format, organized and interpreted by someone else brings a fresh perspective to understanding these facts. Andy’s analysis, for example, is something that had much more impact in writing than in our discussions.

Second, I benefited from learning new information and details. Andy spent about two years gathering information and conducting interviews. It is natural that he knows more about these topics covered than anyone else. Toward the end of the book-writing process I recognized this accumulated and began asking his opinion as an “expert” whenever a new bay issue came up. The book is loaded with details that I did not know before.

Third is the learning that does not come from what’s written on the pages. This is the analytical part, the real value of reading and structured education. I’ve been hugely influenced by many books in the past and this book will have an oversized impact.

I will comment later on details and lessons learned – some fall in each of these three categories.

Whistleblower risks are real

Whistleblower risks are real! I know first hand the real dangers of being a government whistle blower. It happened right here in Cumberland County New Jersey in 2006.

The truck used in the vehicular assault November 2006.

As I laid badly injured on my lawn at the side of the road we heard the attacker yelling “What did you think would happen for fucking with Riland” as he drove away from the scene. I was intentionally stuck by a neighbor’s truck that veered off the road and accelerated toward me on my lawn. By luck and miracle I vaulted over it as it stuck me to avoid being run over. I broke ribs when the truck grill hit me and that was the first thing I felt when I hit the ground.

Riland was a local politician who repeatedly threatened me to not spread information about local government’s liability in failing to mitigate basic climate change impact here at Money Island. He had at least one prior police record for assault for a violent political retaliation.

Later multiple witness testimony confirmed that the politician and the assailant had colluded to “take me out” shortly before the attack. The politician was heard neighbors screaming at me and threatening me for distributing written information about local government’s liability for ignoring climate change impact to my neighbors about an hour before the attack. I was an early whistleblower in the area of environmental justice and didn’t even know it at the time. I was just trying to get local government to admit their errors in failing to deal with water level rise that already washed away houses and part of our road.

I had also reported receiving a telephone death threat to New Jersey State police for the same matter two months earlier. Even though I reported the caller’s number to police, I don’t think the political retaliation threat was ever investigated.

The assailant told his employee minutes before the attack that “I’m going to jail tonight” before getting into the truck. The assailant fled the state the next day (or shortly thereafter) with funds from his family, was arraigned by a grand jury in his absence, but was never formally charged or tried because Cumberland County prosecutors missed key hearings and twice “misplaced” the file.

Our current District Attorney disclaimed responsibility for the prosecutorial errors because the case began prior to her appointment. The politician also fled the state and was never charged for his role in the crime. Local government did not contest and quickly settled the civil charges for its indirect liability in the attempted murder.

I expect (but don’t know for sure) that some of this is covered in the new documentary book “The Drowning of Money Island” scheduled for release by Beacon House Publishing on October 1. The legal case records are available as public information. I lost many years of work recovering from those injuries and still struggle with the impact today. Only now, after all these years, do I have the courage to stand up to talk about the pervasive government corruption that still reigns powerful today. In most cases there are no real protections for whistleblowers and corrupt politicians have shown again and again that they are willing to commit violent crimes and murder to protect their power base.

https://apple.news/ATZ4OuS8iQ8OolVrGLJnseg

Eminent domain at the bayshore

“Little else raises fear in property owners like eminent domain powers of government”.

I remember back years ago when we didn’t worry that our children might be murdered in a mass killing by crazy guy with a military style machine gun in their school. Back then we didn’t worry that people from another country were stealing our anything. In fact, we even welcomed them and benefited from the relationships. And we mostly believed that when our president said something the result was based in fact. Back then, I still recall, that one thing that did make an ordinary American’s blood boil was the topic of eminent domain. The government’s right to take private property for the public good scared us to an extreme. Little else raises fear in property owners like eminent domain powers of government. The topic of eminent domain was a prevailing social paranoia among NJ and PA property owners in the communities where I grew up as a child and lived as a homeowner for decades more.

Bayshore residents give up a lot in order to live here. No modern conveniences, fierce bugs, storms, flooding, heat and more. Yet we make those sacrifices for a reason; the ability to remain in our own part of heaven. Yet eminent domain threatens to rob us of the value of these years of sacrifice by offering the depleted cash value of our homes and businesses and leaving little option to restore a quality of life elsewhere. Eminent domain is the ultimate environmental injustice. Eminent domain is one of the legally endorsed techniques to accelerate the overall long term trend of rich people displacing poor people at the coast. I understand this larger concept of government displacement of poor people at the bayshore is a theme of the book “The Drowning of Money Island” that I have not read yet.

Since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 thousands of New Jersey shorefront property owners – mostly in rich Atlantic coastal towns – have felt the effect of eminent domain law. Many hated it and think of it as legalized theft. But the government’s perceived need to make immediate infrastructure changes to save our shore towns was held as a higher priority than individual property rights.

Most people acknowledge a need to relocate populations away from the coast but some human workforce is still needed at the bayshore to support fisheries, aquaculture, marine trades and other support services. I’ve always assumed that I might be floating on a boat, but that my presence would always be valued in these capacities at the bayshore.

Here at the bayshore state government has emphasized voluntary property acquisitions rather than eminent domain. The words eminent domain are still considered taboo by many politicians. One of our former mayors emphasized that this township would never use eminent domain to acquire properties. That’s partly why I was surprised when conservative Downe Township in Cumberland County proposed a series of land acquisition ordinances that included eminent domain provisions. The ordinances do not require that the properties utilize eminent domain law, but rather that they open the door to that possibility.

This blog post is written simply to document the little bit that I’ve learned about eminent domain as it applies (or not) to our situation.

I presume that small township solicitors use prototype ordinances in his daily work for our township. This seems to be the case for a number of proposed land acquisition ordinances that include the term “EMINENT DOMAIN” in the title section. More concerning is that each proposed ordinance includes this phrase:

“WHEREAS, the Township has determined that it is necessary, beneficial and in the public’s interest to acquire all or a portion of the subject Property for public use as proposed;”

I’ve learned from other sources that this is boilerplate language and, in fact, no actual determination that would meet the requirements of that clause under the Eminent Domain Act of 1971 as interpreted by the courts, has actually been made.

Here are my concerns:

First, I wish that we would be more precise in our wording of proposed ordinances to avoid miscommunication and legal tussles later. The fact is that it is highly unlikely that local government could meet this specific legal requirement. To say that government already did this is misleading.

Second, I wish that we would completely avoid the use of the term “eminent domain” unless it is absolutely necessary as determined by due public process.

Third, I wish that we would address the real problem: scarcity of funding to accomplish all of these well-intended municipal goals. While I know that a few people work hard to find funding, the pattern is to ignore possibilities of public private partnerships like the ones my company Baysave develops to accomplish community goals. We need to get the community involved and build consensus among diverse interests to accomplish our challenging climate change adjustments ahead.

A celebration of bravery

Today is a mile mark, maybe even a celebration, of personal bravery. Earlier this year after suffering a dismal series of government attacks, I decided to take my family’s advice and get out of New Jersey permanently. I won’t enumerate the litany and range of problems again now; it’s depressing enough just to have them back in memory. But it has been a long year of personal and professional threats and attacks, physical, legal and otherwise. It’s clear that I’ve really pissed some government people off and that there might be more problems ahead as long as I remain committed to talking about government misbehavior and environmental justice issues.

Over the past few months a handful of things have improved. Two of my antagonists died. In July the Attorney General’s office sent a letter to the Superior Court judge in my open case that the state does not intend to take further action. That means, as far as I know, that in two years I am entitled to ask for dismissal of the charges. I’ve heard confirmation from a number of sources that government is backing off its active prosecutions of the poor rural bayshore residents. Maybe my activism in environmental justice even played a role in that shift in paradigm. I had to go through CPA license reviews in two states. That meant rehashing all of the details of my legal history. Both boards were OK with it.

Today I rejoined the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants. I submitted the application and paid the fee. The association members and staff have been fabulously supportive through my crazy journey as an environmental activist. I had resigned in June, in fear and while planning an exit from the state. In the meanwhile I’ve cancelled all of my NJ memberships and affiliations and moved my personal and business licenses out of the state. I am now willing to consider finding a new home here and we will move cautiously in that direction. For now, those other things can remain out-of-state and move slowly to return.

Whether my bravery is smart or foolish remains to be seen. Time will tell. Bu I’ve survived the wrath of an attempted political assassination, endure an ongoing smear campaign, targeting by the seafood industry, avoided drowning under the legal might of the Attorney General’s office, handled millions of dollars in legal claims, loss of all of my net worth, am dealing with a deterioration of health and personal relationships. But I’m still here, still trying to rebuild a life, a business and a community. The way I see it is that there is little down side remaining. I might as well stay and enjoy the view.