Profile: Keeping NJ Coastal Communities High and Dry in the Coming Century

Scott Gurian | July 8, 2015 | Profiles
New Jersey Future’s David Kutner heads up a team of recovery-planning managers that helps towns assess their vulnerabilities to tomorrow’s storms

David Kutner
Who he is: Recovery Planning Manager for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for responsible land-use policy.

Age: 62

Hometown: Medford, NJ

What he does: Kutner oversees a team of local recovery-planning managers who provide outreach and support to six coastal municipalities responding to the effects of superstorm Sandy: Sea Bright and Highlands in northern Monmouth County, Tuckerton and Little Egg Harbor in southern Ocean County, and Commercial and Maurice River in Cumberland County. They help these communities conduct assessments of their risks and vulnerabilities to future storms, present their findings through a series of public meetings, and assist towns in mitigation and resiliency planning. Kutner also works on a variety of other projects for New Jersey Future, including an ongoing, human and economic health-impact assessment for residents who’ve been offered buyouts in the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor.

How they conduct their assessments: Kutner and his team examine current high-tide levels for coastal areas, land topography, and sea-level rise predictions to estimate flood-inundation threats by the middle of the century.

“We chose 2050 because it’s reasonably within the term of a conventional mortgage, and that tends to resonate with people,” he explained. Overlaying their maps with parcel-level tax data, they’re able to project the extent of exposure in terms of the value of specific properties.

“Then we translate that into the assessed value to the community and the revenues that they could expect to lose as a result of this exposure,” he said. “So we put it in very stark, dollars-and-cents terms, which is what resonates with local officials in municipalities. Their concern is largely and often, ‘What is the bottom line here, and how does this relate to me and the viability of my municipality?’”

On the importance of his work: “I believe it’s absolutely critical to do vulnerability analysis,” he said. “Initially after Sandy, the focus was to rebuild and get everything back to the way that it was. What that means is that they could very well have been spending money and scarce resources putting people and property right back in harm’s way.” Given the threats of sea-level rise, he explained, “we need to understand what the implications are for our development patterns, and we need to know whether there’s a point at which we really need to rethink the way we develop the coast. What we’re trying to do is present the risk analysis as early as possible so that they do have the wherewithal and the information that they need to make intelligent choices.”

How this information is helping communities: While most local officials already have a good sense of the parts of their towns that flood on a regular basis, “the key here,” said Kutner, “is that the past is not a pattern for the future. “Circumstances are changing that could radically alter your understanding of what’s safe and what isn’t.”

“We just had a third public meeting in Little Egg and Tuckerton,” he continued. “It’s very sobering information, and I think a lot of people are looking at it, and they’re saying, ‘This is hard to deal with!’ But this is a conversation that needs to occur at a much broader level. Everybody universally agreed that they want to talk more about these things. In the communities where we have presented the risk analysis, a lot of times the elected officials have been a little trepidatious, but the residents really appreciate the opportunity to hear the data. They may not believe it all, but they really want to hear about what the analysis shows.”

Lack of leadership from the top: Kutner says that another challenge the communities he’s working with face is that they don’t have the political support structure backing their efforts.

“They’re not getting the direction from the state that says, ‘These are the things you’ve got to look at,’” he said. “The state is still sitting on the fence to a certain extent. They are putting out programs that can begin to wrestle with these issues. I mean, we’re funded through [the Department of Environmental Protection] to work on some of these programs, and we’re appreciative of it, but there is not a state policy like in Maryland, Delaware, or New York where there’s assertive efforts to begin to characterize and plan for sea-level rise. It’s just not happening here.”

Where to go from here: Given the enormity of the challenges that are to come, Kutner said the serious conversations are only just getting started. In order to make progress confronting sea-level rise, he’s calling for communities to work together to develop regional solutions.

“Municipalities characteristically don’t tend to work with their neighboring municipalities, particularly to deal with conditions that don’t know municipal boundaries,” he said. “The risks that these communities are facing, they’re facing coastwide. You can’t expect one municipality to address it and effectively respond when everything around them is potentially at risk.”

His background: Before being hired by New Jersey Future, Kutner did local planning for 30 years, working as a consultant in both the private and public sectors, for states, counties, and local municipalities in four or five states.

Personal life: Kutner says his work is extremely gratifying, but while he jokes that it’s become all-consuming, he still manages to find time for some of his hobbies: biking, skiing, and spending time outdoors. He also enjoys building and designing furniture for his family and friends.

“It’s not commercial,” he said with a chuckle. “You can’t make money building furniture. It’s not possible. It just takes so long to build a piece! But you do it for love.”