Thursday, July 03, 2014

Princeton's New Tearer Downer

Meet Princeton's new possession--a three bedroom on a slab at 59 Meadowbrook Lane, with no updates but a verdant setting, in a pleasant neighborhood. The deal's not sealed yet, but town council voted June 23rd to approve purchasing it. At $30,000 in local funds, it seems like a steal, but the story gets complicated, and much more expensive, very quickly.

It's got lots of room to stretch out. Looks like the sort of property that long ago would have been snatched up and turned into a McMansion or two. Just one problem.

A river flows through it. That's Harry, as in Harry's Brook.  Harry is a very longtime Princeton resident, as old as the hills. You'll find him all over the eastern half of town if you look hard enough, but he stays quiet. Doesn't send letters to the editor. You may hear him gurgling now and then, deep beneath the street, when you walk past a manhole cover. Like a lot of Princetonians, he gets his start at Princeton High School, and picks up this and that at Palmer Square. He used to get some spring in his step around Spring Street, but was forced underground and turned mischievous. He thinks of campus as a whole other watershed. He still finds inspiration up around Mount Lucas, but from there it's all downhill, as he meanders eastward towards Carnegie Lake.

Harry's well behaved uptown, where he accepts without vocal complaint all the dirt and discards washed off the streets during a rain. It's a convenient service old Harry provides, but his headwaters in town have hardened over the years. Roads, driveways, bigger houses, and urban soils deprived of nature's annual infusion of absorbent leaves have made that Old Softy watershed less receptive to rain and Harry more prone to radical mood swings.

Downstream, as his many feeder streams mingle, he can quickly turn into a whole other animal. As they say of poison ivy vines that can be identified by their hairiness, Harry can be scary. This is the view of the same brook as in the previous photo, but from downstream looking up at the patio of the house, on the evening of July 2nd after an intense but not very long rain.

Yikes! Anyone want to sign a lease? The mayor lives right across the street, and it's nice to have waterfront property. The Princeton Packet reported that since 1979, "the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid out $250,000 in damage recovery funds for damaged property and contents of the house." Renters could be seen over the years drying out their possessions after floods.

Now, FEMA is contributing $595,000 of federal money to buy the house, and another $70,000 to demolish it. This being Princeton, the seller, who had long since turned the property into a dubious rental, was not happy with $595,000 and demanded an extra 30 grand in local money. That's nearly a million dollars in public money paid to deal with a house the seller reportedly bought for $182,000 in 1989. There were two very bad private decisions made. One was to build the house in the first place, on floodplain land thirty feet from a stream. The other was the current owner's decision to buy it in 1989. Neither of those decisions appear to have had negative financial consequences. Then there were all the public decisions, permitting the house to be built, and allowing the hardening of the landscape upstream, exacerbated by the increasing intensity of rainfall as we continue to tinker with the earth's climate. For these, the public is paying dearly. Though we have collectively contributed to the problem, this looks like another example of privatizing profit while socializing risk.

Harry's Brook is lapping not only at the house but at the bridge as well, which is just a few years old and you'd have to think is designed to accommodate periodic overtopping.

Even after the house is torn down, some hazards will remain. The creek has become deeply eroded over the years from all the flash floods generated upstream. The sharp, rocky dropoffs and tendency towards flash floods could put in question any use of the property for a park. The stream also curves sharply to go under the bridge, and the outer bank continues to erode, which means over time the road could be undermined.

So the stream that could be an asset is currently a hazard. What happened is that the stream was originally much more shallow, and any potentially erosive flood waters would have quickly spread out into the surrounding fields, dissipating their energy. As Princeton grew and the watershed hardened, floodwaters became excessive, erosion deepened the streambed, and now the stream can no longer dissipate energy by spreading out, thus causing even more erosion. This is known as a stream becoming disconnected from its floodplain. Significant restoration of the stream could create an enlarged floodplain at the lower level, but a big issue will be expense, and also how to stabilize the bank currently eroding towards the road. Presumably, the stream's potential future harm to the road would have been a public liability regardless of whether the property is publicly or privately owned.

So, what to do with this less than ideal situation? The brook, though deeply incised, still provides some habitat. A lot depends on whether the stream can be made into an asset. One naturalistic vision would be a restored stream flowing through a floodplain with diverse field/shrub/tree habitat, where kids could safely explore the stream.

The hydrology may or may not be conducive for turning the field into a showplace for attractive floodplain wildflower species like bonesets, cutleaf coneflower, swamp milkweed, tall meadow rue, hibiscus, and joePyeWeed. (A deeply incised stream lowers the surrounding water table, which in turn makes it harder for vegetation to access groundwater during droughts. What typically wins out in such altered hydrologies is aggressive invasive species like mugwort.) Shrubs like silky dogwood and elderberry would add to the showiness and habitat, along with some trees for shade. A shaded area for picnic tables would be unobtrusive, and play equipment, less or more, is an option, depending on neighborhood needs and the dilemma of periodic flooding.

Wherever this story leads, there's nothing like a stream to dramatize the interconnection between public and private, upstream and downstream, past decisions and present circumstance.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

One Way to Reduce Your Home Energy Bill

Another entry in my "Don't try this at home" Home Improvement series:

About a month ago, I received a phone solicitation from IDT Energy--one of many third party energy suppliers that have called, seeking to sell me energy. In Princeton, PSEG still delivers the energy, but the energy itself can be bought from a large variety of suppliers through the NJ Energy Choice program. You can buy 100% renewable energy, or some smaller percentage, but even the 100% renewable is only minimally more expensive. If you stay with PSEG as a supplier, their energy is produced mostly from nuclear, coal, and gas. Some of the other suppliers calling for your business may be mostly coal.

It sounded like IDT was going to sell me electricity at an incredibly cheap rate of 3 cents a kilowatt hour. The usual rate is about 17 cents. Thinking it too good to be true, but intrigued, I went along with it. What followed was about a half hour of tediously arranging the shift to the new company. It sounded like there were inconsistencies in what they were offering, but they promised I'd see it all in writing in a week or two, and could cancel or switch back to my current provider at any time and for no charge. When the written version arrived, it turned out to be vague and boiler plate. The 3 cents, it seemed, was not the full amount but instead what they would add on to a base charge, which could vary.

I called to cancel. IDT said they'd investigate whether the third party company they had hired to do the phone solicitation was being misleading. Meanwhile, my current electricity provider, EnergyPlus, had called, offering 8% cash back at the end of the year if I stayed with them.

So it was not a complete waste of time. Some questionable phone solicitors may be investigated, and I'll get an annual check in the mail, which I'll probably mistake for junk mail and throw away. I also learned that the 100% wind power I'm paying a penny per kilowatt hour more for doesn't really come into my house as virtuous, green electrons, but rather means that EnergyPlus buys an equivalent amount of renewable energy certificates on the open market somewhere in the U.S. In other words, I'm helping stimulate wind energy production in Texas. It's one of the better things one can do with a few spare pennies.