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Post-Sandy Recovery: Balancing Regional Planning and Home Rule

Some members of the planning community think it’s wrong to look for new regulations governing Sandy rebuilding to be handed down from on high. “Neither bottoms-up or top down are really the right way to go,” says Rob Pirani with the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit civic organization that focuses on the long-term planning needs of the tri-state area. “You need to have a balance that respects local decision-making, and really local knowledge and values of their own community, with the ability to provide some efficiencies and understanding that can really definitely come from a regional look at a problem or a challenge.”

Examining the problems caused by Sandy and implementing changes from a regional perspective would seem like a natural job for New Jersey’s coastal counties, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Atlantic County's Deputy Director of Planning John Peterson says his county's role in the aftermath of Sandy has primarily been that of a clearinghouse for information, helping to distribute information from various state and federal departments and agencies to the county's two dozen municipalities. It’s also doing some mapping to gather information about land elevations throughout the county and assemble a clearer picture of areas at risk of future flooding. Beyond that, he couldn't comment on the question of whether the county should be more involved in overseeing the planning and rebuilding process.

With 565 municipalities, New Jersey has a strong tradition of home rule, with many individual townships and boroughs fiercely independent and protective of their unique identities and the desire to do things their own way. It's such a sensitive issue that one official in another county speculated that no one would be able to speak on the record about what the county's role in the planning process should be, since doing so would be akin to committing political suicide.

“The idea of home rule sounds great, and certainly you want to have decisions reflect the needs and desires of local residents in towns,” says Pirani, “But very often, some of the challenges that these towns face, they’re not going to be able to address on their own. And they’re going to be able to achieve a much greater result if they work with their neighbors.”

Pirani’s reasoning sounds strikingly similar to arguments Christie has voiced in the past, when advocating for more sharing of services in small towns and consolidating places like Princeton Borough and Princeton Township to avoid duplication of resources and run municipal government in a more cost-effective manner. So far, the governor has not discussed the issue of whether more regional planning might lead to greater efficiencies. Pirani thinks it could lead to some savings in the short-term -- like fewer salaries for planning staff and municipal attorneys -- but he says the greater savings would inevitably come over time, as individual towns realize that making planning decisions on a region-wide basis makes everyone safer and more resilient.

One proposal for getting towns to work together on planning issues would be to form some sort of regional body with regulatory planning and permitting oversight over the coastal zone. It’s an example that’s been followed in other states like California and the Carolinas. Closer to home, a newly formed Coastal Commission could be modeled after the existing Highlands and Pinelands Commissions.

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