Lawmakers: Spend Even More on Storm Recovery at Jersey Shore

Bills propose $100 million more to help property owners plus increased funding for shore-protection projects

The Legislature is looking to significantly increase how much the state will spend to help New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy.

Less than a week after Gov. Chris Christie called for allocating $40 million more in state funds to supplement the expected billions of dollars in federal aid for Sandy recovery efforts, lawmakers yesterday began discussing even more spending related to the superstorm.

“It’s not anywhere near sufficient,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), explaining why the state should increase disaster-recovery spending,suggesting it would help homeowners and businesses not eligible to federal funds.

In a rare joint meeting of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee and the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee in the Statehouse Annex, the members considered proposals to increase disaster aid to $100 million, while also doubling the annual $25 million state appropriation for shore-protection projects over the next three years.

Whether the Christie administration backs the spending plans is quite uncertain. Typically, the administration will not reveal its position until Christie takes action on a bill or bills. A representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection did not speak at the hearing.

The proposals, include in a Sandy-related legislative package being considered by the two panels, won support from coastal scientists from a variety of colleges in New Jersey, particularly regarding the shore-protection proposal. Coupled with aggressive dune-protection efforts, the steps would better protect Jersey Shore communities from extreme weather events in the future, the academics agreed.

The bills, not expected to move quickly, cover a range of issues that have emerged since Sandy cast a swath of destruction over much of the Jersey coast and sparked much debate over how to rebuild the Shore and make it more resilient.

One issue that has attracted less attention is how much the state should pull back from rebuilding in particularly vulnerable areas along the coast, a topic mentioned less frequently during the more than three-hour hearing.

For instance, homeowners are facing requirements to elevate their structures, with the release of new maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to avoid flooding in the future. In many cases that would result in the structures being above the current 35-foot height requirement, triggering a need to obtain variances from local government ordinances, according to Smith, chairman of the Senate panel.

Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said homeowners are already faced with financial and insurance issues related to rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. “It’s one less issue to go before a municipal government for a variance to elevate their home,’’ he said.

Yet Mauriello told lawmakers that some sort of buyout program needs to be included in efforts to recover from Sandy. “There are circumstances when the risk is so great we should offer folks a way to buyout their homes,’’ he said.

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, agreed.

“The coast is an inherently risky place to live and build,’’ he said. “The state needs to consider a much more robust buyout program.’’

Another key bill in the package aims to address an appellate court ruling that awarded $350,000 to a homeowner in Harvey Cedars, where construction of a dune blocked access to an ocean view.

Officials in many Shore communities say the ruling, if upheld, would make it virtually impossible to build new dunes, which proved the most effective measure in preventing damage to building during Sandy.

“If this proceeds, it will be the end of beach restoration,’’ predicted Margot Walsh, executive director of the Jersey Shore Partnership, which is appealing the decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The two committees heard coastal scientists from New Jersey colleges agree that both beach-replenishment and dune -restoration efforts are probably the best wasy to prevent future damage along the Jersey Shore.

“The beaches and dunes together work as a system,’’ said Dr. Jon Miller, assistant director of the New Jersey coastal program at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Right now there this a dire need to protect our beaches, which are very vulnerable.’’