Throwing the Book at Coastal Flooding and Sea-Level Rise

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | December 14, 2017 | Planning
A comprehensive report from NJ Future gives the governor-elect a new challenge: devise a coordinated response to help residents deal with flooding along the whole coastline

New Jersey Future on Wednesday added another item to Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s to do list: Devise a coordinated response to help the entire state coastline adapt to rising sea levels, eroding beaches, increased flooding, and climate change.

While the report released by the nonpartisan organization that promotes smart-growth principles was commissioned by the state Department of Environmental Protection more than a year ago, the timing of its publication with just about a month left in the Christie administration means, as a practical matter, that its recommendations will fall to Murphy to consider.

“Using the best-available scientifically informed and supported climate-change metrics as the criteria to determine where coastal development should occur will help to break the unsustainable cycle of ‘build-flood-rebuild’ that has characterized recovery along New Jersey’s shore,” said New Jersey Future Executive Director Peter Kasabach. “This will be a critical focus for the next governor as he weighs the most economically and environmentally responsible role the state can play to protect and preserve our coastal communities.”

No time to waste

And Murphy needs to do that soon, contends the report “Sustainable and Resilient Coastal Communities: A Comprehensive Coastal Hazard Mitigation Strategy,” before it’s too late both because sea levels are rising at a faster pace and because coastal communities and their residents are likely to resist change.

“The most recent scientific analyses underscore the urgency of initiating as soon as possible coordinated, focused actions in response to rising sea levels,” states the report. “The land-use changes that are needed to ensure that people and property are not in harm’s way will require a long period of adjustment before they achieve successful outcomes. Sea levels are rising at an accelerating rate and immediate action will allow time for rational deliberation while it is still feasible to weigh alternatives.”

As part of its coordinated response, the state should adopt uniform standards for analyzing risk and guidelines for local planners do deal with it; require municipalities to determine which areas are at greatest risk of increased flooding due to sea-level rise; and revise state funding programs to target properties most likely to suffer from the results of climate change.

Flooding frequency

The most immediate threats are posed by flood-related disasters — New Jersey has experienced one a year, on average, over the past two decades — brought on by storms. Several studies project that the number and intensity of such storms are expected to increase. New Jersey got a taste of this kind of storm when superstorm Sandy hit five years ago, necessitating tens of billions of dollars in repairs and destroying or damaging some 346,000 homes.

Citing New Jersey’s long history of home rule, the report notes that discussions of restricting development or rebuilding and adopting more stringent building codes “are extremely difficult topics of conversation in shore communities, which have a well-established cultural, as well as financial connection to their patterns of development … These can be particularly difficult when they involve the potential for altering longstanding patterns of land use and development.”

But not addressing the potential dangers would likely “perpetuate the ongoing cycle of merely putting people and property back in harm’s way after a storm rather than charting a course for resilient coastal development,” the report warns.

It provides a host of suggestions for minimizing the potential damage from flooding brought on by an expected increase in the number of stronger storms, as well as from rising sea levels, which one recent report states will lead to as many as 131 New Jersey municipalities subject to flooding every other week from high tides. Many are directed at local officials and involve enacting more resilient building codes and standards, refocusing development, and protecting marshes and wetlands.

More specifically, the report presents suggestions based on how much flooding is expected and what the planner or community is trying to prevent. These options are complex and comprehensive: For instance, it suggests three options (maximum risk reduction, moderate risk reduction, and minimal risk reduction) for all land from the mean high tide to the ocean; from the mean high tide to land with a 10 percent chance of flooding in 2050 according to projections; and for three other land categories getting progressively drier. If a planner chooses maximum risk reduction in the mean high-tide area, the options include restrict rebuilding, make buying land the highest priority, limit public infrastructure investment, and so on.

‘Menu of options’

“The strategies outlined in our report should be viewed by coastal communities as a menu of options,” said David Kutner, planning manager at NJ Future and leader of the project. “Municipal officials can select those that will have the biggest impact on their preparedness for the risks associated with sea-level rise. Not only will these strategies make people and property safer, they will help provide communities that implement them with a more secure economic future, less prone to the repetitive damage and loss that accompanies severe storms and flooding.”

The most significant report recommendations, though, are aimed at state officials and the report urges officials to act quickly.

“The project team’s most critical recommendation is that the state needs to create a mechanism to compel every coastal municipality to assess immediately its risk and vulnerability to sea-level rise,” begins the report’s recommendations for state-level actions. It adds that new policies, guidelines, and standards for shore-area development “will be most effective if they originate in the governor’s office.” One way to do this would be to revise the municipal land-use law to require that local officials include risk and vulnerability analyses into their master plans.

“The report stresses that leadership at the state level is absolutely required to facilitate municipal risk-based adaptation and mitigation planning,” said Geoffrey M. Goll, president and principal engineer at Princeton Hydro, an ecological and engineering consultant that was a partner in the project. “This will, in turn, allow local officials time for rational deliberation to weigh options.

Establish long-term plan

The report urges the state to develop a long-term “climate adaptation plan” for the entire coast. This would lay out the kinds of things that local officials should do to try to prevent damage from future floods, such as preventing or limiting development or rebuilding of damaged properties in certain areas. It would also prevent the siting of public buildings or other facilities in flood-risk areas. That would give county and municipal officials guidance for their own planning efforts and ensure that all public facilities are not threatened by floods.

Further, New Jersey should adopt the sea-level rise projections in last year’s report from the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance as the state’s uniform standard for risk analysis and hazard mitigation planning. This report found there is a 67 percent chance of sea levels rising as much as 1.8 feet higher along the state coast by 2050.

In addition, the NJ Future report suggests the creation of a commission to advise the governor and Legislature on ways to mitigate the causes of climate change and prepare for and adapt to its consequences.

“The state can be instrumental in providing guidance and assistance to communities to help them evaluate future risk so they can take coordinated, focused action to minimize or avoid vulnerability to sea-level rise,” said Leah Yasenchak, owner of BRS, a consulting firm specializing in brownfield redevelopment projects that was a partner in the project.

Flood and finance

Because the costs associated with taking a property off the tax rolls would be a major challenge to changing development along the cost, the state should align its programs and financial incentives to encourage or discourage development in areas prone to flooding or with the potential to flood in the future. The report states that the New Jersey’s Blue Acres buyout program, which is the major funding source for acquiring properties subject to repetitive flooding, should use sea-level-rise projections to set priorities to purchase land at greatest risk of future floods.

Another way to make it more financially palatable for restricting development on at-risk properties would be to use regional transfer of development rights (TDR), regional revenue-sharing, and other programs. Through a regional TDR program, a person would be able to transfer his right to develop his property in a flood-prone or risk area to someone in a nearby community in exchange for payment. A coastal region revenue-sharing program could work like the one that was part of the original creation of the Meadowlands district: Municipalities in the district that had no restrictions on growth shared some tax revenues with communities where development was limited due to the preservation of environmentally sensitive land.

“The absence of a reliable funding stream discourages municipal officials from serious consideration of difficult risk-response planning,” the report states.

An attitude issue

A lack of funding is not the only barrier to change. Other major hindrances to change include the attitudes of residents about current flooding at high tides — “a tolerable nuisance and an acceptable trade-off to living on New Jersey’s coastal fringe” — and lack of acceptance of future flood dangers that have not yet happened.

“Many of the strategies that could be effective in altering development patterns will be viewed as limitations on private property rights,” the report notes. “At the present time, land values along New Jersey’s coast are rising and people who own these properties expect that trend to continue. Consequently, enacting strategies to downzone, buy out, restrict, or transfer development rights in coastal areas to accomplish protection against a future risk will be politically unpopular and very difficult to implement.”

The experiences of the NJ Future team working with three “pilot” communities on potential actions to achieve more resilient shore development proved this. As described in the report, NJ Future officials had a previous working relationship with officials in two of the communities, Little Egg Harbor and Tuckerton, and so were able to have a “constructive dialog.” There was no prior relationship with officials in Toms River, the third pilot community, and township officials ultimately rejected all recommendations from NJ Future’s team.

NJ Future’s report does not pretend to be the final word on the issue. It lists 16 additional questions the report could not answer or need further study.

The report and work with the pilot communities was funded by a $209,000 grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Land Use Planning. Its goal was to evaluate the state’s current rules for designating development centers along the coast and how the boundaries of such centers should be redefined based on future projections of coastal flood risk and sea-level rise.