Senate Committee Passes Package of Bills to Speed Post-Sandy Recovery

Legislators look to put their stamp on effort mostly directed by Christie administration to date

Hoping to speed up recovery at the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, lawmakers yesterday approved a package of bills, including one that might make it easier and less expensive to elevate homes and businesses to protect them from future extreme storms.

The package covers a range of issues facing policymakers who are struggling to decide how, where, and whether rebuilding should occur. They are also trying to resolve questions about public access that arise when taxpayer dollasr are spent restoring beaches along the Atlantic.

The action taken by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee in Trenton probably marks the first substantial effort by legislators to help shape the post-Sandy rebuilding effort, which has largely been driven by the Governor’s office to date. Not everyone was impressed with the bills, however.

“The real big stuff wasn’t on the agenda,’’ complained Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, citing buyouts of high-hazard properties and regional planning and adaptation to rising sea levels caused by global climate change. Those criticisms echo others that have been leveled at the Christie administration by environmental groups that have sought a more deliberative process of rebuilding the Shore.

Nevertheless, several of the bills generated some vigorous debate and opposition. Probably the most controversial (S-2598), a measure that would allow homeowners and businesses to elevate their structures without obtaining local zoning approval. Its sponsors are Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, and Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic).

Under new maps endorsed by the Christie administration, homeowners or businesses that do not elevate their structures could face huge increase in flood insurance costs, possibly as much as $30,000 a year.

The bill is opposed by the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, which sees it as wresting an important land-use tool from local officials.

“The problem is the local planning process adds three to six months to win approval and several thousand dollars,’’ Smith said, in arguing for the exemption.

Michael Cerra, a lobbyist for the league, argued otherwise. “There is a feeling that the local land-use process has a proven track record,’’ he told the committee, adding it also allows residents to participate in land-use decisions affecting their properties.

Smith acknowledged that there would be pushback from neighbors, but suggested it could stymie the rebuilding process if dozens of neighbors show up at a zoning board hearing protesting a plan to elevate a home and block their view of the ocean.

Whelan agreed, adding that home rule should not be the issue in this case. The mandates to elevate homes and businesses along the coast are not being driven by local or state requirements, but by new maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which dictate that structures in high-hazard areas will be subject to huge increases in flood insurance costs unless a building is raised.

“The individual has no choice,’’ Whelan said. “They have to raise the house or they are not going to be able to sell it.’’

But Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, suggested the exemption to local land-use laws could thwart efforts by local officials to prevent rebuilding in areas where common sense dictates it should not occur.

The other bills in the package were somewhat less controversial.

One of them (S-2600), again sponsored by Whelan, would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to again establish a priority list for what beach replenishment projects are funded by the Shore protection fund — giving priority to projects that emphasize dune and wetlands restoration, among other nonstructural efforts.

The DEP used to have a priority list for such projects, but allowed the rule to expire. Some conservationists, like Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, argued that the bill needed to be amended to ensure beach replenishment projects provide public access, a requirement in both federal and state regulations, but rarely enforced.

“Federal tax dollars should not be spent to protect private beaches where there is no access,’’ Dillingham told the committee.

Environmentalists also opposed another bill (S2680), sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), which allows new development in coastal high-hazard areas. Proponents argued it would apply to a half-dozen projects in Hudson County, but critics said it is folly to build in those areas in the wake of Sandy,

“It just defies common sense, after coming through Sandy, to remove restrictions on building in high-hazard areas,’’ Dillingham said.