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Post-Sandy Recovery: Balancing Regional Planning and Home Rule

Some environmentalists wonder whether those measures are enough. “The question is whether or not the elevations and the beach nourishment projects are going to provide sufficient protection to the communities in a future that has sea level rise and probably more intense storms coming,” says Tim Dillingham, Executive Director of the American Littoral Society, a national coastal conservation organization based in Highlands, NJ. Dillingham and others like Jeff Tittel from the New Jersey Sierra Club think the answer is no. They say the FEMA maps are inadequate because they don't take into account the extent of the flooding that took place during Sandy, nor do they look at sea level-rise or what scientists predict is an increased risk for more severe storms in the future.

The state has also responded to calls for stricter building requirements in the aftermath of Sandy by suggesting that rebuilt homes will be more storm-resistant simply because they’ll incorporate more current building codes than much of the shore’s older housing stock. David Fisher with the New Jersey Builders Association and K. Hovnanian Homes agrees that most of the homes destroyed by Sandy pre-dated the newer codes that came into effect in the late 1990s, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. “It’s why they were swept off their foundations. It’s why there was severe damage to so many structures,” he says. By contrast, he explains that most of the homes built in the past decade did not sustain major damage. “We’re confident that the current codes New Jersey requires today, in terms of wind damage, strapping for hurricanes, foundations, and the basic structures and windows and doors, will be more than adequate.”

A Laissez-faire Policy

Overall, the Christie administration’s general approach to the post-Sandy reconstruction, as well as the consideration of future resiliency measures, has been to leave many of the specific decisions up to individual municipalities and homeowners. Speaking with the Asbury Park Press back in January, the governor worried that setting too many top-down, uniform regulations could destroy the “uniqueness” that people experience when visiting individual shore towns. “Belmar is different from Long Branch, and Long Branch is different from Sea Bright, that’s different than Spring Lake, different than Point Pleasant or Seaside and very different than Long Beach Island,” he said. “I’d like to keep that difference from town to town, if I can, and I think the best way for me to do that is to set a regulatory floor but then allow the towns to work from there with individual homeowners and business owners on how they rebuild.”

The current way of operating has coastal municipalities each going their own route, doing what they feel is the best approach for their residents. In some cases, those differences can vary widely, even from one town to the next. For example, Seaside Park’s extensive dune system spared it from the much of Sandy’s ferocity, while neighboring Seaside Heights -- which didn’t have the dunes -- experienced massive damage and flooding.

In Hoboken, Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s proposal to build seawalls to protect her city from future storms has raised concerns that the structures could exacerbate flooding to the north and south in Weehawken and Jersey City. And the situation is similar between Bay Head and Mantoloking: In the wake of Sandy, the DEP approved a plan by a group of Bay Head homeowners to extend an existing rock revetment, while Mantoloking is staking its safety on beach replenishment and manmade dunes.

While officials in both Bay Head and Mantoloking stress that they consider it merely a difference in philosophies rather than any sort “dispute” or “disagreement,” Bay Head Mayor William Curtis acknowledges that residents up and down the coast would probably be better-served if shore towns could work together to make their approaches more consistent. Chuck Latini, head of the state chapter of the American Planning Association agrees. “I think plans can be really well done at the local level and even on a neighborhood base level,” he says, “but if you don’t think about the context you sit within and you don’t think about the regional impacts, then you’re really missing the ball at the end of the day.”

Part of the problem, explains Tim Dillingham with the Littoral Society, is that weather patterns don’t respect county or municipal boundaries. “The coast should be managed as a system. And those systems – whether that’s the way the bays work, the way storms happen, the way beaches migrate -- happen on a scale larger than individual municipalities,” he says. Because of that, Dillingham is among those who think the state should have a stronger role in coastal planning and development.

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