Op-Ed: Sustainable Beach Development Is Possible on the Jersey Shore

Melissa Friedhoff | August 17, 2016 | Opinion
First, we need to reform lenient coastal land use regulations that allow reckless development in vulnerable areas

Melissa Friedhoff
Why are we building sand castles at the water’s edge? Ever since Hurricane Sandy — the devastating storm surge that hit 137 miles of New Jersey’s Atlantic coastline in 2012, caused $37 billion in damage, and forced thousands of families from their homes — beach communities have been rebuilding in high flood-risk areas.

The truth is, building in areas that were in Sandy’s wake will only lead to more devastation when future storms hit. But how can we develop safely and sustainably when the state’s environmental policy is not up to date with current realities, such as sea levels rising and storm surges increasing in frequency?

The solution is much-needed coastal and wetland management policy reform that promotes a long-term sustainable solution for life on our beloved shores. With the 2016 hurricane season only weeks away, it has never been more imperative to take action.

Why should we rethink sustainable building? Put briefly, our environment is changing. A U.S. Geological Survey reported sea levels along the 600-mile stretch from North Carolina to Massachusetts have risen by 1.97-3.80 mm per year since 1990 — four times the global average — and will continue to rise at an increasing rate.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a 2013 study that mentions “warming that took place during the 20th century has already led to a doubling of the risk of Katrina-magnitude storm surge events” and “a warming of just 0.72°F could cut in half the return period of Katrina-magnitude surges, thereby making them a far more frequent occurrence.”

This means more severe storm inundations than Sandy in the future. New Jersey needs to accept these indisputable facts and consider the consequences; doing so will help develop more effective policies for sustainable development.

So what are the existing policy problems we need to fix?

First, coastal land use regulations are too lenient and lead to reckless development in vulnerable areas. For example, lifting homes to a specified height to prevent flood damage creates a false sense of security, and is not a viable preventative measure; it’s like adding more and more sand to make a sand castle bigger — eventually the ocean is going to wash it away no matter how tall it is.

Second, FEMA is not required to have updated flood maps when responding to natural disasters. During Sandy restoration, 25-year-old flood maps were referenced during reconstruction which, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, made it “difficult for local planners to effectively understand and address current and future risks posed by climate change, urbanization, and other factors.”

Third, there is an extreme lack of programs to create buffers that would proactively mitigate flood damage.

What are some possible policy solutions? We need realistic state-level goals for future coastline development if we are to be both environmentally and economically sustainable. We need new restrictions and guidelines for construction and rebuilding to ensure that structures are developed in safe locations and with storm-resistant infrastructure. Right now, developers can build without permission from the state — this has led to hazardous rebuilding.

We also need more effective programs to safeguard susceptible areas. Referencing our sand castle analogy above, let’s build some moats between the ocean and our sand castles to leave space for the water when a storm hits.

There are several options: the state government could either restore and preserve wetlands or create levees, floodwalls, tide gates, and pump stations — which make room for the water and act as effective barriers.

There should be new policies for a gradual retreat from the beach. Either the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) could work with local government to impose higher real estate taxes on any future structure built in high risk areas to deter further development in those areas, or the state government could administer a government buyout program in which NJDEP could purchase real estate at a fair market price and conserve the land as public parkland, wetland, or national preserve.

New Zealand — a country susceptible to chronic flooding — currently has a Coastal Policy Statement in which local governments examine a managed retreat from coastlines. Their policy has proven to lessen the economic and environmental damage caused from storm surges.

Sandy’s destruction was a wakeup call for better building strategies. The good news is sustainable development along the coastline is achievable, cost-effective, and safer. But here’s the catch: there have to be distinct policies with comprehensive plans. It is up to everyone to take initiative; the local public needs to spread awareness and policymakers need to take action. So let’s be proactive, let’s be prepared, let’s be resilient.

Let’s build more sustainable sand castles on our shores this summer.