Does the Jersey Shore Need a Regional Coastal Commission?

Proponents contend that planning for — and dealing with — climate change, rising sea levels, and extreme storms can’t be done on a town-by-town basis

shore after sandy
The idea of establishing a regional coastal commission to help the Jersey Shore adapt and plan to deal with climate change and rising sea levels is being revived.

The concept, first advanced by former Gov. Thomas Kean decades ago, would become a reality if a bill (A-3725) introduced yesterday by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) becomes law, likely a long and difficult prospect given its history.

Kean’s proposed commission faltered in his second term despite strong backing from the popular governor. Gusciora sponsored a bill setting up a regional commission in the prior legislative session, but it never even had a hearing in committee.

Sea level and extreme storms

Still, with sea levels rising and the state suffering through extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which many say are likely to occur again, the restoration and protection of the Shore can best be accomplished through comprehensive regional planning, proponents say.

“It’s a good idea,’’ said David Kutner, planning manager for New Jersey Future, which has promoted the concept. “In order to deal with all these issues, you have to deal with it regionally.’’

Last fall, the Regional Plan Association released a report that recommended forming a tristate coastal commission, similar to ones in place in the Chesapeake Bay and San Francisco Bay areas, to prepare for rising sea levels.

“As the consequences of climate change intensify, towns and municipalities in the region are woefully underprepared to address them,’’ Robert Freudenberg, a vice president of the association, said at the time.

Gusciora’s bill would establish a 19-member coastal commission to deal with planning and enforcement of various environmental laws in parts of Atlantic, Cape May, Ocean, Monmouth, and Middlesex counties.

Besides overseeing all planning activities related to development, it would have jurisdiction over all beach erosion and shore protection projects and oversight and disbursement of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Its powers would include managing growth in the coastal commission area and preserving and protecting natural resources.

A coastal commission, backers say, 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. It also could act as an advocate in making sure investments are targeted to the right places, according to proponents.

“The coastal commission is an idea whose time has come,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, who contends that during the Christie administration it became easier to build at the coast. “We clearly need a regional approach to map out ways to improve water quality and avoid repeating the sins of the past.’’

A study released last year by the RPA found that many areas of the tristate region, mostly near bays and tidal estuaries, will be permanently inundated by seal-level rise. The association has proposed a surcharge on insurance premiums to help fight climate change.