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DEP Looks to Buy Out Streets, Neighborhoods Devastated by Sandy

Tom Johnson | April 16, 2013

Where and what to buy still unknown, but critics not shy about raising objections

sandy long beach island

The state expects to buy out 1,000 properties in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with the focus on purchasing entire streets or neighborhoods, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

With $250 million in federal money allocated for the effort, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin faced repeated questions yesterday from the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee during a hearing in the Statehouse annex on the agency’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2014.

“What we’re trying to do is buy out whole streets and whole neighborhoods. That’s a top criteria,’’ Martin told the lawmakers. “Just buying one or two houses doesn’t really help.’’

The agency has been talking with various communities about the buyout effort, Martin said. So far, approximately 10 towns have come forward with proposals involving 50 or more homes, the commissioner said. He did not name the towns.

The buyout has emerged as one of the more contentious issues concerning how the state goes about rebuilding post-Sandy -- especially in coastal areas subject to frequent storm damage -- a cost borne by all New Jersey taxpayers.

The question of where and what homes will be bought out was raised by some lawmakers during the hearing, as well as by some of the state’s most prominent advocacy groups.

Conservationists see the DEP plan as a way to restore natural features along the coast, like dunes and tidal areas. Both the Christie administration and the environmentalists agree that areas where dunes are in place suffered far less devastation.

Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) raised questions about the pace of rebuilding, wondering whether the state is moving too fast.

“Ought we to step back and do adaption planning so we have a better future?’’ asked Greenstein. “Should we look for a new future for the Jersey Shore?’’

Martin replied that the department is trying to do the rebuilding effort thoughtfully.

“What we’re trying to do is find the right balance,’’ he said. The state projects that it will spend $1.2 billion in federal money rebuilding the entire coast, Martin said.

The department is working with the federal government to develop coastal zone-protection programs involving engineered beaches and dunes, according to Martin.

The commissioner faced questions from the chairman of the committee, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) whether the effort to build dunes along the coast would infringe on people’s property rights.

“We need to reassure people that this is not the government going about in a land grab,’’ Sarlo told the commissioner.

“This is not about public access,’’ Martin replied. “This is about building dunes to protect homes and those behind them.’’

Martin also was asked about water quality along the shore, with the state’s lucrative multibillion dollar tourist season set to kick off at the end of May.

Despite the malfunctioning and, in one case, the complete devastation of New Jersey’s biggest sewage treatment plant, Martin said water quality for the approaching tourist season remains good. Two weeks ago, the DEP took 114 water samples along the coast, he said. “All 114 came back very good,’’ the commissioner said.

In other matters, Martin deflected questions about how the state would deal with the depletion of state funds to preserve open space, farmland, and historic buildings. The previous year, he told lawmakers he soon would be submitting a proposal to create a stable source of funding for those efforts, but it has yet to materialize.

In the past, voters approved bond issues to mostly fund those efforts, but that source of money has essentially been wiped out. In running for election, then-candidate Chris Christie promised some groups he would propose a stable source of funding.

Martin said the DEP is in consultation with the governor’s office on various options, three of which are pending in the Legislature. “It’s up to the governor to make that call,’’ he said.

The commissioner also hinted at further changes that might make changes in the state’s rules governing development in coastal areas. He said the agency may soon propose emergency regulations in the so-called Coastal Area Facilities Act area to speed up permitting of certain projects.

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