Will Climate Change Revive an Old Idea: a Regional Coastal Commission?

Hurricanes and extreme storms, sea-level rise, major flooding are more than a single municipality can deal with on its own

new wave
Could climate change lead the state to embrace an idea it shunned more than three decades ago: creation of a coastal commission?

The prospect of establishing a strong regional entity to plan and adapt to the chronic flooding and rising sea levels expected to leave much of the Jersey coast vulnerable was floated yesterday at wide-ranging conference on the Shore of the Future at the War Memorial in Trenton.

The event, the first of a series of conferences planned by New Jersey Future, found planners, conservationists, and policymakers generally agreeing that the issues posed by a changing climate far outstrip the ability of local communities to cope with and be resilient to extreme storms to come.

Reviving the concept

Former Gov. Thomas Kean initially proposed a coastal commission back in his second term in the 1980s, but it died in the Legislature, and other attempts to revive it have gotten nowhere — even after Hurricane Sandy devastated wide swaths of the coast. Kean revived the idea in an op-ed co-authored with Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, in the Star-Ledger this past Sunday.

With a new governor taking office in January and a sense of urgency added by a spate of destructive hurricanes this summer in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, the idea that only a regional commission can prepare for and take the steps to mitigate the impact of future storms and global warming seems to be gaining currency.

“It’s time for something,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “I don’t think there’s any question a regional approach is needed. That means fundamentally renegotiating our relationship with water.’’

“What’s really quite clear is the issues are far too big, far outstrip the ability of one or even a group of municipalities to handle. The state needs to step up,’’ said David Kutner, planning manager for New Jersey Future. “It is a role New Jersey has been absent from — I daresay — for the past eight years.’’

Marshalling science

A coastal commission could marshal the science about climate change to establish standards that would make Shore communities more resilient and prepared to deal with the impacts of global warming, proponents said. It also could act as an advocate in making sure investments are targeted to the right places, they said.

Others noted many Shore communities already are feeling the impact of climate change, with chronic flooding during high tides. Sea-level rise will erase important assets along the coast, predicted Joseph Maraziti Jr., former chairman of the State Planning Commission.

Local governments face too many fiscal constraints to tackle these issues alone, Maraziti said. “We can’t sacrifice our future on the altar of home rule,’’ he warned.

A study released earlier this year by the Regional Plan Association found that many areas of the tri-state region, mostly in bay areas and near tidal estuaries, will be permanently inundated by sea-level rise.

In a report released this week the RPA proposed a surcharge on insurance premiums to help fight climate change, according to Robert Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environmental programs for the association. It also recommended a tri-state coastal commission.

“There is a lot we can do locally, but we need to act regionally,’’ he said.

The recurring question during the discussions was whether a regional approach to the problem can win approval. “I don’t this goes anywhere without leadership,’’ Dillingham said.

Maraziti agreed, calling on the next governor to take this issue on.