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Post-Sandy Recovery: Balancing Regional Planning and Home Rule

If New Jersey were to take more of a hands-on role in shepherding the rebuilding process, it wouldn’t have to look far for inspiration, say environmentalists. Just across the river in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo assembled three commissions comprising 80 scientists and business and industry leaders to come up with a comprehensive, area-wide plan setting standards for redeveloping New York’s damaged coastal areas.

Jessica Grannis with the Georgetown Climate Center -- which has studied the approaches various states have taken in managing their coastlines -- characterizes it as more of a top-down approach, emphasizing the role of climate change impacts in future scenarios. New York City has likewise undertaken a holistic, borough-by-borough assessment of not only what failed and why, but also how to build in greater resilience to future storms. “They took a deep dive on the planning side to direct the money,” Grannis says, “whereas New Jersey is taking more of a ‘let’s get the money out there, let’s rebuild, let’s get it back up quick,’ and maybe think about resilience later.”

Overall Objectives

Here at home, one logical place to jumpstart these discussions would seem to be the State Planning Commission, which puts out the NJ Strategic Development Plan. According to state statutes, the purpose of the plan is to establish overall objectives for things like land use, economic development, conservation, and intergovernmental coordination. Although it's intended more as a set of guiding principles than an enforceable set of regulations, parts of the state identified in the plan as "growth areas" are eligible for financial assistance from the Economic Development Authority.

In late 2011, the Christie administration rewrote the existing state plan that had been in effect for a decade to include new language that environmentalists characterized as more focused on economic growth and development, as opposed to the old plan, which they said was more preservation-oriented. DEP Commissioner Bob Martin disputed claims that the new plan would weaken environmental rules. He said the intention is to focus on preserving natural resources.

Either way, in the aftermath of Sandy, all sides recognized that the new, proposed plan might have to be sent back to the drawing board to take into account the increasing risks for flood-prone coastal areas. As a result, Gov. Chris Christie has delayed it from officially taking effect. "It made sense for us to put it off and to reconsider it in light of some of the new challenges that have been presented by the storm," he said at a news conference last November. "It would be kind of silly to go forward with a planning document when now the face of your state has changed pretty significantly in certain areas." The timeline for when the new plan will be revised and put into effect remains uncertain.

In the meantime, the Planning Commission hasn't been very active. In fact, it's regularly cancelled its meetings in recent months due to "lack of agenda items." Multiple calls and emails to a press spokesperson seeking comment went unanswered. Planning advocates think the Commission should play more of a central role in the early stages of the Sandy recovery. Chris Strum, who's a senior policy analyst for New Jersey Future, a planning advocacy organization, says that an improved state plan could provide a unified vision for how to rebuild to make the shore more resilient.

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