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Post-Sandy Recovery: Balancing Regional Planning and Home Rule

This is the second in a two-part article detailing the issues that planners and advocates are grappling with as they struggle to restore and remake the Jersey Shore. An online conversation is also available that lets you discuss challenges and strategies with some of these experts. NJ Spotlight partner WNYC/NJPR contributed to this article.

Read the first article in the series.

Toms River Township Planner Jay Lynch likes to show visitors his framed certificate from the American Institute of Certified Planners that's hanging on a wall in the corner of his office. It's Professional Planner license No.19, which he claims is the lowest number still practicing in the state. His coworkers sometimes tease him that this means he's really old, but he sees it as a badge of honor, a testament to his wealth of experience.

Over the past 50 years, Lynch says he’s heard the growing calls by environmentalists for people and development to move away from the most vulnerable areas of the coast, places like Seaside Heights, Mantoloking and Ortley Beach. Those calls have intensified in the aftermath of Sandy. But Lynch sees them as premature. “I think it’s too early to retreat. It’s too early to bail out,” he says. “I’m not sure whether anybody could even figure out an economic solution to retreating at this point. There’s a lot of property value out there, and you can’t just tell people they can’t use their property. You can’t deny building permits unless you compensate. I don’t think pragmatically that there’s a way to do a strategic retreat.”

But it isn't simply a question of retreat or restore. What decisions are made and where they are made are among the thorniest issues facing planners looking to reinvent the shore. New Jersey has a strong tradition of "home rule," in which communities decide key issues for themselves. It may help explain why the concept of shared services never really caught on.

But thinking locally can be particularly problematic post-Sandy, since one town's plan of action may not jibe with a neighbor's. One of the most notable examples of this is Hoboken's plan to build a seawall to redirect storm surge. Unfortunately, the redirected water may flood nearby towns.

What's more, weather patterns are regional rather than local, as several planners point out. But what it will take to move local New Jersey officials to take a broader -- or more holistic -- view of the Sandy scarred beaches and boardwalks is still an open question.

Meanwhile, there's a growing sense among a number of environmentalists that whatever choice is made will be the wrong one. For them, FEMA maps and dune replenishment -- even if executed along the full length of shore -- will prove inadequate, because the guidelines themselves are inadequate and don't take into account the effect of global warning.

Growing too Fast

Historically, Ocean County -- where Toms River is located -- has been the fastest-growing county in the state. Between 1950 and 2010, its population increased tenfold, and growth along the Jersey Shore overall has more than tripled in that time, though census data shows that trend has slowed over the past few years, in the wake of the housing bubble. This growth has been an essential part of the state’s economy, but it’s also the reason New Jersey’s losses in the storm totaled $37 billion.

Many policy experts in the fields of planning and the environment think Sandy was a wake-up call, a sign that we’ve been moving too fast along the coast and warning us that we need to alter our patterns of development if we hope to make the shore more resilient to future events like Sandy. They say that leaving important planning decisions to local municipalities is the wrong approach, since towns are highly dependent on property tax revenue and often have a strong incentive to pursue redevelopment, even in areas where it might be best not to rebuild.

And they’re concerned that with federal money being used for the reconstruction, more oversight is needed to ensure that taxpayers aren’t subsidizing risky development that might be washed away again in the next storm. At the same time, state officials have been hesitant to micromanage the storm’s aftermath. They fear that intruding too much in local planning decisions could add red tape to the recovery process, slowing things down and usurping the rights of individual shore communities and residents to determine their own futures.

Prior to Sandy, the most significant state regulations governing coastal construction were the DEP’s Flood Hazard Control Act and the Coastal Area Facility Review Act (commonly known as CAFRA), which put in place a set of basic rules aimed at protecting the ecology of the shore. CAFRA has been effective at limiting construction of large-scale, waterfront developments like industrial facilities and apartment buildings -- which is why the Jersey Shore doesn’t look like Miami Beach. But in the minds of many environmentalists and people like John Weingart -- who worked on coastal issues at the DEP for close to two decades -- it failed to go far enough.

“There was a reasonable belief among many lawmakers at the time that if you controlled the large developments, you could control the overall development patterns of the shore,” he says, noting that history has proven that assumption was wrong. CAFRA placed few restrictions on developments of less than 25 units -- including single-family homes – allowing them to be built without applying for DEP permits, as long as they were in compliance with local zoning codes.

As a result, almost half of the development along the Jersey Shore over the past few decades has involved projects with less than twenty-five units. Weingart says his colleagues used to joke that one day, archeologists will dig up the Jersey Shore and think the number ‘twenty-four’ had religious implications. There was also a sense, he says, that it was nearly impossible to slow the rate of coastal construction, that “this is the way it’s going to be until God re-zones the coast.” He thinks Sandy may have been the first of many such moments.

Going forward, the $50 billion of federal aid Congress approved last January for New Jersey and the other states recovering from Sandy came with the stipulation that part of the money should be used "to help the region prepare for future challenges, including future severe storms and coastal flooding, as well as impacts associated with a changing climate." The largest chunk of this aid -- some $16 billion -- will be funneled through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, which requires that recipients promote "sound, sustainable long-term recovery planning informed by a post-disaster evaluation of hazard risk, especially land-use decisions that reflect responsible flood plain management and take into account possible sea level rise."

So far, the state of New Jersey’s response to all this talk of mitigation and hardening the shore has been mostly focused on its adoption of the new FEMA flood elevations and its plan to have the Army Corps of Engineers build a line of sand dunes along the 127 miles of its Atlantic coast.

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.

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.

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.

Mike Cerra of the New Jersey League of Municipalities isn’t too wild about that idea. “I think we’d rather see planning, and good planning, as emanating from the bottoms-up, coming from the towns, pushing its way to the counties, up into the state,” he says. “Ultimately it’s the people who live in these communities, who make it their home, who’ve invested in these communities, who should have the final say.” Bay Head Mayor William Curtis says he’s not necessarily opposed to the formation of some sort of commission, but he agrees that successful planning needs to start on the local level, with mayors who understand the needs and desires of their residents and their towns.

The notion of forming a New Jersey Coastal Commission was first introduced by Gov. Kean back in the ‘80s, but it never gained much traction. In the aftermath of Sandy, Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex) has reintroduced the idea, but it’s opposed by the governor and many coastal lawmakers who not only raise home rule concerns, but also fear adding a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.

Breaking Camp

Jack Purvis stands at the edge of a vacant, three-acre lot along Rt. 35 in Brick, New Jersey. He’s the head of the New Jersey Society of Architects, and he’s brought along his friend, fellow architect Paul Barlo, who collaborated with him on a recent project. They’re looking out on the wreckage that remains of Camp Osborn, a neighborhood of 1920s-era bungalows that experienced severe flooding and a fire during Sandy, with close to a hundred burning to the ground in this section alone. “It’s a beautiful spot. You’ve got the bay on one side, the ocean on the other. It’s a nice place to live, nice place to have your kids in the summer,” says Purvis, but glancing at the field with scraps of plywood, twisted and rusty metal and charred piece of what were once people’s homes, it takes a bit of imagination to understand what he’s talking about.

He and Barlo have come up with a new plan for this land, supported by a majority of the former residents and the town. It would entail building a high density, 90-unit condominium complex, elevated on a platform to withstand future flooding and raised a full six feet above FEMA’s minimum height requirements. Barlo predicts that five or ten years from now, their type of design is what most development along the Jersey Shore will look like.

“The reality is that the new construction is the wave of the future, and the old way that we did things . . . We’re not going to see that anymore,” he says. “It’s idealistic to say that it should be pristine, and we shouldn’t be building on a barrier island, but I think we’re beyond that point. We just have to be careful that Mother Nature needs to come in and go out, and people need to live the best way they can, dealing with the forces of nature.”

But rather than making preparations for future storms, some shore residents are simply holding out hope that Mother Nature won’t return, at least not in such force or anytime soon. Drive just a few miles south on the island, to the Ocean Beach section of Toms River, and you’ll find hundreds of tiny cottages in a development fairly similar to what Camp Osborn was like before the storm. Fortunately for the residents here, Sandy’s damage was much more modest. A few of them have now raised their bungalows up on piers, but many of the residents paid off their mortgages long ago and don’t have flood insurance, so there are no requirements to elevate their homes. Instead, they’re simply staying put and hoping for the best.

Susan Fennes and her husband have owned a house here for 22 years. She thinks Sandy was a one-time event, and she says it hasn’t changed her view of living at the shore. In fact, she says she’s been going there for so long, that she doesn’t ever want to leave. “My husband’s more of a pessimist. I’m an optimist. And he says, ‘Yeah, maybe in forty years, nothing will be here,’” she says, “And it could be true. But, you know, there’s all this hype. You don’t know who to believe. I know they say ‘global warming,’ and the storms are going to be worse,” she continues, but, “What do they know? Do they really know that? No. So we’re taking our chances.”

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