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Opinion: Fostering a Smart Dialogue About Post-Sandy Recovery

The Jersey Shore will always be vulnerable to tides and storms, it's time to rebuild with that in mind.

The news that the Sandy cleanup was contracted to a Florida firm that is apparently charging more than double its competitors’ rates has an eerie, “here we go again” feel.

But as someone who spends a lot of time trying to fathom and explain government workings to New Jersey’s business and nonprofit leaders, I’m also keenly aware that decisive action and tangible progress were the defining government goals. And they were ably achieved, renewing our purpose and giving hope to our shore communities.

With storm cleanup well underway, Gov. Chris Christie has made clear that he's determined to bring tourists back to the Jersey Shore this summer. It’s an economic necessity for a large swath of communities that depend on the seasonal surge of beachgoers; it’s a political imperative for a governor seeking reelection this fall; and it’s a psychological reassurance to a battered people that all can be restored again.

In other words, it’s tangible and it’s short term.

But there’s more to the ongoing story than clean up first and rebuild fast. A growing number of local efforts are underway to examine how we should live along a coastal plain that is subject to frequent scrubbing by tides and thrashing by storms. Local residents, mayors, land-use experts, and developers are combining efforts to demonstrate ways to rebuild with an eye toward sustainability in this shifting landscape. Their voices should be guiding us.

Among the first to speak up is a dean of New Jersey development, Peter Reinhart, who now directs Monmouth University’s Kislak Real Estate Institute. He stated the challenge clearly at New Jersey Future’s post-Sandy conference in December, exhorting us to work “smarter and better” when weighing rebuilding options. That means knowing where to rebuild and where to leave well enough alone. Fortunately we’ve got people who know how to tell the difference. Lucy Vandenberg is one of them.

Lucy is executive director of PlanSmart New Jersey and a former head of the state’s Council on Affordable Housing. In January, she informed us on this website that the State’s Blue Acres Program has successfully preserved hundreds of flood-prone properties that absorb storm runoff, thus keeping nearby development viable.

Blue Acres compensates landowners, redirects development to sustainable areas, and provides vital open space that acts as a catch basin for future floods, redirecting waters from harmful impacts. Targeted land purchases with Blue Acres funding should be a part of every shore community’s rebuilding strategy.

Another experienced expert weighing in is a former manager of the State Office of Smart Growth, now currently director of the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Environment, Barbara Walsh.

Barbara reminds us that the Jersey Shore is home to thousands of working families, and the acute need for affordable housing cannot be sacrificed in rebuilding. Individual family homes and our collective community character are at stake. Barbara is galvanizing local activists -- together with policy professionals -- to promote a “no net loss” affordable housing standard for assessing post-Sandy municipal housing patterns and reconstruction.

Important policy and planning dialogue about Sandy rebuilding is gaining traction. We also must demonstrate that community-planning efforts can deliver buildable projects that embody sustainable development principles. That is the impetus driving two foundation leaders, Chris Daggett of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Hans Dekker at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, to launch a New Jersey Recovery Fund. The Recovery Fund is now actively seeking broad-scope collaborations to apply for grants to jumpstart local Sandy rebuilding projects that encompass smart-growth principles. The growing cadre of donors drawn to invest in the fund seeks to foster a chain of workable community approaches that will put in practice what’s been preached.

Our rebuilding approach following Sandy isn’t only about smart land use and sustainable rebuilding. Post-Sandy reconstruction represents a new opportunity to train and deploy a new group of workers eager to start building-trade careers. Here again, we have examples to draw from and expand upon.

Over a dozen years, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has built an impressive track record of training and placing over 400 Newark residents in careers with the seventeen union members of the Essex County Building Trades Council.
Institute executive director Cornell Brooks has forged the keys to successfully placing workers in these careers: trade unions that are committed to growing their membership with new workers; government contract requirements to hire local workers; strong and trusted nonprofit partners that will find, screen, counsel, and support nontraditional workers on their journeys to success.

The Institute along with its trade-union partners has developed the model. Now let’s apply it to post-Sandy reconstruction.

Mark M. Murphy is president of Lead New Jersey and a senior policy fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. He can be reached at mark@leadnj.org .

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