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Democrats Want Coastal Commission to Oversee Rebuilding of Jersey Shore

For GOP, bill would just add another layer of bureaucracy, slowing push to restore the Shore.

FEMA Sandy
Credit: FEMA/Sharon Karr

Former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean first proposed it back in the 1980s. Create a coastal commission to curb overdevelopment at the Jersey Shore, preserving one of the state’s most precious natural jewels and maybe its most important economic engine.

The proposal was resurrected again yesterday by Democratic lawmakers, who view it as among the steps now needed to help the Jersey Shore recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

Apparently GOP lawmakers don't agree, questioning whether it would only create another layer of government hampering efforts to rebuild the Shore.

The legislation (A-3920) won approval from the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on a strictly bipartisan vote. Sponsored by Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex), the bill faces an uncertain future, with the Christie administration cool to establishing any new regional agency to oversee local planning..

For that matter, Kean’s proposal also never gained much traction, falling victim to New Jersey’s tradition of home rule and other issues.

To supporters of the coastal initiative yesterday, however, Sandy changed everything.

“I believe the time has come to have a serious discussion about a regional plan to [restore] areas devastated by the storm,’’ Barnes told the committee. “I don’t think Gov. Kean would have proposed a bill that wasn’t thought out.’’

Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, agreed. “It’s clear we need to get some regional planning in place to protect the coast,’’ she said. “It’s been degraded because of overdevelopment.’’

The proposal, which would create a 19-member commission to oversee development in more than 300 communities, won praise from other conservationists, but criticism from business and local officials.

“It’s long overdue. Had Governor’s Kean proposal been in place in the 1980s, some of this devastation would not have happened,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is our last chance to get it right.’’

Republican lawmakers on the committee disputed that view, arguing that the bill would create a new bureaucracy that would stall efforts to rebuild the Jersey Shore.

“If these are implemented, how would you see anything rebuilt in the next 10 years?’ asked Assemblyman Holly Schepsi (R-Bergen), a member of the committee.

Business lobbyists echoed that argument, questioning whether a new bureaucracy, one with a $20 million budget, could speed up rebuilding of the Jersey Shore..

“One of the concerns with creating an agency like this it become a behemoth,’’ said Anthony Mercantante, the administrator of Middletown (Monmouth). “You could wind up with a lot of gridlock.’’

Others disagreed with that assessment.

“We are on a path, unfortunately to rebuilding the same as it was before,’’ warned Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a conservation group dedicated to preserving marine resources. “Clearly, we need a new institutional structure to get there.’’

The debate yesterday in the hearing crystallizes an ongoing dispute between the Legislature and Christie administration over how New Jersey should seek to recover from Hurricane Sandy and make the state more resilient in the event of future extreme storms, a probability few doubt.

Numerous bills are moving through the Legislature to address problems created by Sandy. At the same time, the Christie administration is issuing executive orders to speed up rebuilding of the Jersey Shore, a strategy that some groups argue should be more transparent.

Citing a study by a university planner, Bill Wolfe, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Environmental Employees for Responsibility, warned that the state needs to changes its policies. “New Jersey has become the laboratory of how not to develop your coast,’’ he told the committee.

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