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Sea Bright Takes Hurricane Sandy as an Opportunity to Reinvent Itself

Stressing recovery and resiliency -- and a regional approach to problems -- planning initiative melds local perspective with long-term rebuilding.

sea bright mayor
Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long addressing residents at a recent community planning meeting.

When Sandy came ashore last October, Sea Bright’s downtown was severely flooded, with more than a thousand homes and businesses damaged or destroyed and the streets filled with mountains of sand and debris.

Ten months later, as the repairs continue, the borough is using the experience to reinvent itself and plan for the future, working with the neighboring town of Highlands to take a regional approach to its recovery.

Both New Jersey Future and Sustainable Jersey are leading the project, along with a similar effort in Ocean County’s Little Egg Harbor, and in another group of towns -- Downe, Commercial, and Maurice River townships -- in Cumberland County. In each of these communities participating in the “Local Recovery and Resiliency Network,” New Jersey Future will embed a planner for the next 18 months to help oversee the long-term rebuilding effort on a local level, with a focus on sustainability, mitigation, and collaboration with neighboring municipalities.

The project may be extended to three years, depending upon funding. Meanwhile, Sustainable Jersey’s Resiliency Coordinators will work on developing storm mitigation strategies on a more regional basis.

The overall goal of the Local Recovery and Resiliency Network is to channel Sandy’s destruction into a chance to return to the drawing board and reimagine how towns should best be developed to make them more sustainable and prepare for the predicted effects of climate change. While the process may be difficult for lifelong residents, used to things the way they are, Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long said they really have no choice. “Change has already happened. And it happened to us in one fateful night,” she said. “And so we’re now learning to embrace that.”

As a narrow strip of land, bordered by the ocean on one side and the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers on the other, Sea Bright’s battles with Mother Nature are nothing new. Frank Lawrence remembers regular flooding when he grew up there in the early 1950s. “I think we were evacuated about five times. And at that point my mother said, ‘That’s enough!’ and we moved across the river,” he recalled.

Though Lawrence hasn’t lived in town for decades, he’s maintained a strong attachment to Sea Bright over the years. After Sandy, Mayor Long called and asked him to help lead the town’s effort to come up with ways to address its long-standing challenges and to create the community residents have always dreamed of having. “You have to take this disaster and say, All right, we lost all that, but here’s an opportunity now, where we can do something positive for the long term future of the town,” he said.

Lawrence was one of hundreds of people who showed up for a recent community meeting, the first step in a public planning process that will run for the next several months to determine what shape the recovery takes. In fact, so many residents wanted to be involved that the meeting had to be held in a Catholic school gymnasium across the bridge in Rumson, since there was nowhere in Sea Bright itself that could accommodate the crowd.

The gathering billed itself as the kick-off event for “Seabright 2020,” a reference to both preparing the town for challenges in the next decade and the 20/20 vision that residents are hoping to have as they move forward, understanding what they need to do to make the town safer and more secure in future storms. It was mostly a brainstorming session, with residents milling around the room for over an hour, looking at giant boards asking questions like, “What kind of improvements or changes would help the livability and quality of your neighborhood?” and “Describe how you’d like the character of Sea Bright to be in ten years.” People had a chance to jot their ideas on Post-It notes, which they stuck on the boards for everyone else to read.

Read more in More Issues, Planning, Sandy
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