Groups Seek Details of Plans for Federal Aid for Jersey Shore

Letter urges public-comment period on details of how $400 million would be spent

Before New Jersey allocates $400 million in federal aid to help protect the state from extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, some of the its most prominent advocacy groups want a lot more details on how the money will be spent.

In a letter sent to Marc Ferzan, director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, six organizations called for a 10-day public comment period on the proposal before it is forwarded to the federal government.

The Christie administration is moving quickly to secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a so-called hazard-mitigation grant program. The proposal, however, has yet to be seen by many groups active in efforts to prepare the state for future storms.

There is an ongoing debate over how New Jersey should rebuild in the wake of Sandy, especially in coastal areas subject to frequent storm damage.

The extent of any retreat from rebuilding along the coastline has to be weighed against the impact on the state’s multibillion dollar tourist economy, contend supports of a more aggressive rebuilding policy.

If and how that happens is a concern of the advocacy groups, who say the state has a list of mitigation projects that would be funded by the federal money, but it has not been made public.

“Just as a matter of public policy, the public ought to have an idea of what is being suggested,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, one of the signatories to the letter. “We have an interest in how the shore is rebuilt.’’

The Governor’s Office did not respond to calls for comment. A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said the agency always welcomes input from stakeholders.

The Christie administration has said it will spend $250 million of the federal money on buyouts of properties in areas likely to be flooded again, a step endorsed by many groups, including Dillingham’s.

“The buyouts are a great idea,’’ Dillingham said, although he added that the program may have to be expanded, noting New York is planning to spend up to $400 million to buy out properties in flood-hazard areas.

Others who signed the letter said many more details ought to be revealed before the state commits funding to specific projects.

“If we are not planning for the future, this money could be poorly spent,’’ said Sandy Batty, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions. “The temptation is to rebuild as fast as possible. That’s not always the right situation.’’

A representative of New Jersey Future, another signatory to the letter, agreed.

“Public review and comment will help that sufficient funds are prioritized to planning for resiliency and those areas and projects where there is the opportunity to reduce harm is the greatest,’’ said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future.

There is widespread agreement that areas protected by natural dunes sustained far less damage than other areas. Groups like the American Littoral Society think funding should be focused on restoring natural areas along the coast, such as dunes and tidal areas, according to Dillingham. His organization has developed a list of storm-impacted habitats from the Delaware Bay to Long Island Sound.

Other groups signing the letter included the American Planning Association, the Housing & Community Development Network of Newark and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (full disclosure: this reporter was a press secretary for its CEO Chris Daggett, when he ran for governor as an independent in 2009).