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.

Evolution of the local oyster industry

More than a century ago there were over 300 oyster boats operating on the Delaware Bay employing approximately 1,500 people. The oyster industry led our maritime trades that were one of the four primary industries in our country forming the backbone of employment, tax revenue and overall economic stability.

The oyster industry was eventually depleted by over-harvesting and disease. Once wealthy bayshore towns like Newport, Bivalve and Port Norris reflect this economic decline with all of the ills commonly associated with modern economic blight. We have lower than average income, employment rates and education with higher than average substance abuse, foreclosures and political extremism. Sadly, our area is cited as a hotbed of alt-right activism and KKK activity typically associated with reaction from displaced socio-economic expectations. Our local population is older and declining in comparison to regions that are growing through technology and other revitalization.

Today the Delaware Bay oyster industry is making a strong comeback through the use of well proven aquaculture methods. Yield could increase tenfold or twentyfold within a decade according to an industry consultant. Harvesting operations are now mostly through the port at Money Island. Some of the local oyster harvest is shipped out-of-state with fewer local processors remaining. Branding is important in the oyster industry and some of our local oysters are sold at higher prices under brands associated with other regions. The former oyster docks and processing areas at Bivalve are now mostly historic tourist attractions.

For benchmarking purposes, the local oyster industry dock value is at least ten times larger than the second largest Delaware Bay fishery – blue claw crabs. (I’m not considering menhaden that is mostly harvested off-shore but some catch is reportedly taken from the lower bay).

The days of small independent harvesters are gone. Today the Delaware Bay oyster industry is controlled by a small group of people, mostly through out-of state corporations, employs far fewer people, and provides less public economic benefit to this region than in the past. This change reflects the broad trend we see in industry overall where wealth and power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the 1%. In that respect, it is not unique or unexpected. It simply reflects the common trend where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer through the mechanism of industry and the controlled use of public resources. It requires large capital to be in the oyster industry today and only the largest companies can justify that cost.

In sharp contrast, the oyster industry on the east coast of New Jersey is built upon diversity and small enterprises. As a small business advocate, naturally I tend to support the latter model. Efforts to support small oyster start-up operation s here have not been successful.

While might seem obvious and benign to an outsider, these statements are considered a threat to the local oyster industry. Even just the publication of this statement puts me at personal risk of retaliation. In the past, my mentions of ideas like this through a consultant or a small business industry association, including possible reforms to the oyster industry, have drawn direct adverse business consequences.

Citizen requests to the current Governor and his predecessor that a representative member serving the public interest be included in Delaware Bay decision-making have been ignored. Government has little incentive or ability to change the status quo. I’m not aware of any viable means to change the current system.

To its credit, the current economic system results in a safe, reliable, high quality product. Oysters consumed raw must be handled in a consistently safe manner. Safety standards are rigorously enforced by the big oyster firms. They made significant investment in improved safety equipment over the past year or so. Additional product handling improvements are coming. Anecdotal experience suggests that smaller harvesters may lack the same level of internal process control or might be incentivized to ‘cut corners’ in a way that increases public’s food safety risk. The large oyster operations can not afford to take this risk.

We expect the local oyster industry to grow thrive and prosper in the years ahead under the current system. Economic impact of Delaware Bay oysters will increase from $20 million annually to $40 million annually within a few short years. Investment in infrastructure is evident here at Money Island in 2019 alongside political posturing for a dredged Nantuxent channel and elevated Money Island roadway. There is also some discussion within state and local government of moving the oyster industry away from Money Island but that appears to be a long term consideration more than a decade away.


We face threats to our quality of life and even our continued existence in two primary realms: 1) democracy and 2) planet. The proven effective strategy of those in control of the status quo is to repress history and current science by replacing these with emotionally driven memes that support their own agendas. We see that happening now at a shocking level.

The attack can be deterred by improving the quality of information we absorb. Education weakens the power of propaganda and big money interests. Our salvation does not require change in everyone. If only 5% more people based their positions on quality information sources like primary peer reviewed journals, conventions, the classic arts and books rather than social media then the entire world could be saved.

I’m not saying that I believe that we will actually reverse the dumbing down and decline in the intellect of the mass population. I am just saying that there is a clear possible path to save ourselves. Yet this solution is increasingly attacked as “elitist”, both by the elites already in power and the masses influenced by their propaganda. I hear some version of this label frequently in attempts to repress this thinking.

Being labeled as an elitist and independent thinker can even be dangerous. My community campaign of handing out information to influence local government to follow scientific standards for environmental sustainability triggered death threats and a hit attempt by a local politician in 2006.

Today the repression of democratic process and deliberate repression of information in locally important issues is worse than any other time of my life. This ongoing effort to address this catastrophe remains my primary life focus despite my admission that we are losing the war.

the unlikely elitist

Demolitions and construction side by side?

This article published last fall in North Jersey.com hints at the expansion of the oyster industry here at Money Island. Since then, we’ve seen the greatest expansion of oyster industry infrastructure investment here at Money Island ever with an elevated roadway and dock construction.

Indications are this is only the beginning of the expansion. Today it occured to me that we are likely to see some congestion of heavy equipment this coming year or two as demolition equipment arrives to tear down residential houses while planned expansion continues at the residential docks.

I do not have specific information on the scope or schedule of any project. I’m simply noting the possibility of contrasting images of demolition at some properties with simultaneous construction at other sites. It raises more questions.


Dealing with the accelerating pace of change

The world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace; a pace of change unlike anything our brains have processed before.

I notice that my friends and family who most highly value traditions, memories, law, the Constitution, etc. have the most trouble dealing with the mental process of accelerating change. I’m beginning to think that the fundamental divisions between people are those who are able to embrace change (progressives) and those who cling to the past (conservatives).

I’m not commenting on the value or merits of either mindset here, but rather just commenting on the mental ability to deal with the change happening around us. It is evident that some people are experiencing stress as the pace of change accelerates.

In my case, I find that a culture of “question everything” and large amount of deliberate ongoing education help ease the stress and conflicts related to change.

State government has been tough on South Jersey boardwalks

Late last year the NJ state government shut down the boardwalks at Money Island. This came as a shock to the local residents and commercial fishermen who relied on the boardwalk. Ours aren’t anything elaborate, just about 600 feet of elevated walkways between roadway and water. We already had financial support from private and nonprofit organizations to make the necessary repairs. The problem was that we did not have the money for permits that cost more than the repairs. The permits should have been issued decades earlier. The state admits that it knew the boardwalk lacked permits but permitted its use since the early 1970s. Baysave, a New Jersey charity that owns the local boardwalk, raised donations for repairs but did not know about the additional hidden costs of government permit fees.

Ironically, this past year the state spent more in legal costs fighting the boardwalk than it would have cost to pay for the permits. It was clear that the people in Trenton have no willingness to work with our local community for common sense solutions.

Now the boardwalk repair problem comes up again. The governor denied funding for necessary boardwalk repairs in Wildwood. It reminds me of the struggles we faced with the state in Ocean City when I was a member of the Chamber of Commerce there. The same battles persist.

Boardwalks are critical to our communities and a “one size fits all” budgeting and regulatory process is clearly failing us here in South Jersey.

Several people in local government joined Baysave in attempted communications with the Governor’s office. We tried multiple times by phone, email, online form and certified letter with no response to any of them. We met with State Senator Andrzejczak last fall and he said that he had little power to fight these bad actors within the NJDEP and Attorney General’s Office in Trenton.

Tony Novak is the speaker at Tri County Rotary, Vineland NJ, Tuesday August 20, 2019


Tony Novak is an activist at the Delaware Bay facing the challenges of bringing citizens, government, nonprofits together to agree that the old methods are not working and change in thinking is required to stabilize and restore the enormous resources of the Delaware Bay. His work in New Jersey focuses on Money Island in rural Cumberland County, the state’s #2 most productive seafood landing port. His story and the soon to be released in the book “The Drowning of Money Island” by New York publisher Beacon House. Novak is a sole practitioner small business CPA promoting sustainable business development for construction industry, farming and fisheries.


Thank you to Rotarians…

In 15 minutes total, I’d like to touch on three parts of this environmental justice story:
1) Where we’ve been and how I got to this position – (the unique combination of personal and circumstances that come together to create any good story. Mention Forrest Gump and the October book release).
2) Where we are now with the New Jersey bayshore – (it’s a story that even local community leaders are often not well informed, the reason Jerry invited me).
3) Where we are headed in the future and how we will get there.

– I was a farm boy; my first business was raising and selling vegetables; studied agricultural science and biochemistry, then business. Now I realize that combination of scientific curiosity and practical knowledge is rare and useful.
– Worked for a Wall Street investment firm; left to advocate for small businesses. Developed an early million dollar online business model. We served working class people no matter their national origin or citizenship.
– Worked primarily for construction contractors; was president of the local NARI contractor’s association whose members prosecuted Trump for fraud in the 1990s.
– Success with international wrestling up to age 40 came at a price; one clear impact of traumatic brain injury is lack of inhibition. The most recent injury was a deliberate planned attack (hit attempt) in 2006.
– It all ties into activism in small business; health, environmental and social issues here in South Jersey for almost 30 years. Somewhere in my 30s I traded a Porsche for a Civic and focused on activities like gardening as the key to my future. Started caring for Money Island properties in the early 90s; engaged for a community financial assessment in 2005.
– By chance, stumbled into the worst of crime and corruption. Was the primary whistleblower against a Fortune 500 internet company in 2003 when I caught them cheating on contracts. Avoided involvement in oyster industry prosecutions but dragged into crab industry mess. Gave statements on government corruption to federal and state investigators before and after Sandy. (mention the problem with giving witness statements)

– Right now relatively few mostly unnamed individuals within the State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection control the region’s strategic retreat response plan. Whole towns are gone. You should be concerned! Money Island was the first, to my knowledge, with the financial backing to offer an alternative. The book covers the story of bad actors, mismanagement, corruption and prosecution in that path.
– Baysave formed in 2010 as a 501(c )(3) to pull together a strong team of advocates in industry, nonprofit and government, a written plan, and politically supportable action steps. The core focus was to address the needs of all stakeholders. The plan was on track until it was politically derailed by NJDEP in May 2019.
– NJ governments have sued me, my businesses and individual family members based on murky or manufactured stories in an effort to gain control over my actions to stabilize and restore the bayshore.
– I do comment on this ongoing litigation.

A soft footprint approach engages three strategies.
– Be open and patient – new ideas, new technology, new offers (mention the current offer). This is a long term problem that predates us and will outlive all of us.
– Be communicative privately but silent publicly – the hardest part; I was brought up in an ‘open books’ environment, i.e. lessons learned by aging hippies
– Be independent – do not expect support from government or big fisheries, emphasize use that does not require additional government permits (expand on examples)

We must change the thinking of our relationship with the bayshore. Change does not come easy.

I no longer hold the young activist’s belief that I will be able to change the world. I no longer have a high level of confidence that reasonable people will come together to form reasonable solutions. I doubt that those in power will agree on a basis of fact (as defined by statistical significance analytics applied to a common body of shared data) with the rest of us observing these phenomena.  (These are tough times for scientists).

But I will remain committed to be a strong and clear voice in the direction we must take. 
I welcome follow-up discussion and feedback. The easiest way to reach me is my personal web site that is the same as my name: tonynovak.com

Goodbye JD

We said goodbye to JD tonight. Over the past ten years our cocker spaniel soaked up more love in our house than I knew was possible. Every day had to start with a full body massage and belly rub in bed. Early evenings and Sunday mornings he was riveted by his favorite animal TV shows. He enjoyed his last wild summer at the bay cabin but was showing signs of slowing down since spring. His last walk down Bayview Road on Friday morning was incredibly slow. He loved Money Island.

He came to us ten years ago through a rescue shelter. He was a foodie, and the extra weight contributed to his decline. This past weekend it became clear that he was suffering from a long term congestive heart condition or other internal fluid, making it tough to breathe.

I am also reminded of the other dogs of years ago who loved their life here at Money Island: Duke who ruled the island for so many years, Mollie the young terrier, Cricket Lor’s collie and Harley our loved white highland terrier. Mollie is the only one buried here, that I know, after she was tragically hit by an oyster truck years ago.

Tension over the Downe docks

It’s no secret that the marinas and supporting businesses all along the NJ bayshore are struggling. The classic predictable human response to environmental pressures is increased tension among members of the community. That’s not unique to us. It happens everywhere. But the environmental pressure is certainly increasing and tensions are rising. The watermen here, pushed out of their docks this year, are furious that another marina doesn’t face the same costs as they do here. The fact is that I echoed their complaints without knowing anything about the actual costs of either marina.

By coincidence, I talked with two other nearby recreational marina owners earlier in the day on other unrelated business. I feel for them. They are really working hard to make a sustainable future. I try to be supportive. I remind myself that I have a lousy track record of predicting the future so maybe my negative forecasts for the industry will turn out dead wrong. But to me, it doesn’t look good for recreational fishing as a business. The only bright spot I see is the local commercial fishing and aquaculture businesses.

Tonight a guy I really don’t know from Fortescue who is known by some of the other marina guys here, was outraged by something I said in the newspaper and put in writing about the tension here. He seemed ready to make a scene to call me out for not knowing the facts. He was right, I don’t know that facts. It’s not my intent to know the facts. We have a biographer for that and it’s just not my area of interest. My role, particularly right here, is to record the human struggles and response.

I hadn’t actually put together the face of this guy, a township committeeman, with the story until that moment that he was the guy that our watermen complain about. I should know the local committeemen but I don’t. My first thought was if he is upset by something this minor like a newspaper article and a blog post, then we could have an explosion when the book comes out. As far as I know, the publisher goes into much greater detail on the Fortescue marina finances and mismanagement. But other than these casual comments, I really don’t know much about the topic. I only know what the guys talk about, and lately that’s mostly complaints.

The mayor chimed in too with complaints. That’s nothing new and he is more tactful. The mayor knows that reporters deliberately play us against each other for the purpose of getting their story. They get statements from me and a statement from him deliberately because they know that we have conflicting opinions. That’s been going on for two decades. Normally a third community member, Meghan, who is better respected than either of us guys, offers a balanced middle-of-the-road opinion to wrap up the story.

The committeeman probably doesn’t know that I’ve been sued close to a dozen times for millions of dollars over my unpopular opinions. He probably doesn’t know that I have judgements from those lawsuits far more than I’ll ever earn or be worth, and that none of that intimidates me from continuing to express an opinion. He might not even know that I’ve received death threats and was almost killed in a shocking plot to “take me out” by a local politician in his same position years ago. He did not know about the organizational structure of Money Island or the history of Baysave. Again, it’s not my job to get into that. I just know that my opinions are not popular with local government. It’s always been that way and nobody expects that to change. Nevertheless, my opinions will always be easy to read.

Fortescue primarily serves recreational fishing while Money Island is moving toward serving large commercial operations. The shift is causing tensions among the former recreational boaters and small commercial boats that used to dock here.
Fortescue primarily serves recreational fishing while Money Island (shown) is moving toward serving large commercial aquaculture operations that will emerge over the next decades. The shift is causing tensions among the former recreational boaters and small commercial boats that used to dock here.

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