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Sea Bright Takes Hurricane Sandy as an Opportunity to Reinvent Itself

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.

On the “Economic Development” board asking people what kinds of businesses they’d like to see downtown, people left notes saying they’d like a bakery, a florist, a place that sells greeting cards, and a coffee house with free wi-fi. They’d also like to see the re-opening of the post office and the local bank, which have been permanently shuttered since the storm. Other boards were focused on “Housing and Neighborhoods,” “Waterfront Development,” and “Municipal Lot Development.”

Barbara Nadler has lived in town for 17 years. She said she wants Sea Bright to maintain its funky vibe for artists and other creative people. “Open up the restaurants so they have tables outside, and eating al fresco. People would come to that,” she suggested, adding that chess tables on top of the seawall might also attract visitors. “You need to have something that is special to Sea Bright!” Residents of Sea Bright agreed to continue their brainstorming in several committees, sorting through the hundreds of suggestions to come up with a clear vision of what steps the town should take in the months ahead.

It’s not that people haven’t had these types of discussions in the past, but Sandy has effectively wiped the slate clean and created an environment in which they’re forced to rethink things from scratch. And it’s brought with it the possibility of securing funding to finally turn some of those pie-in-the-sky ideas into action.

Frank Lawrence said the grassroots method, soliciting ideas from the ground-up, rather than the top-down was essential to give Sea Bright the best chance at getting grants. “Part of the federal Sandy money that’s come out has been put aside to fund projects specific to recovery of towns,” he explained, stressing the need for public input into the process of planning process.

“We could have put five people in a room and come up with pretty good ideas. But if it doesn’t come from the community, it’s much more difficult to convince the funding agencies to release the money to us.”

The goal for Sea Bright and the other towns participating in the Local Recovery and Resiliency Network is to make the Jersey Shore more resilient, one town at a time.

For now, the discussion is mostly centered on suggestions from residents. Specific, technical mitigation strategies will be considered at greater length later in the process, once planners with more expertise get involved.

But according to Carlos Rodrigues of the Bloustein planning program at Rutgers, “resilience” doesn’t just mean making Sea Bright better able to withstand future storms. “It’s that it’s more sustainable, more self-sufficient,” he explained. “So, what do you do to diversify this local economy and attract activities that will generate employment, generate wealth, revenue, and attract people to come here that would otherwise not be?”

The committees of residents focusing on community facilities, housing, economic recovery and the waterfront are in the midst of identifying their priorities, and will report back with their recommendations at another town meeting early next month. Plans will then be wrapped up by early November, and the borough will apply for grants to implement some of the ideas.

Planning advocacy groups say that if these trial partnerships are successful, they could spread and set a model for future recovery efforts up and down the coast.

Scott Gurian is the Sandy recovery writer for NJ Spotlight.

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