DEP Seeks Input on New Land-Use Rules to Adapt to Climate Change

Jon Hurdle | March 3, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Public session considers curbing development in flood-prone coastal areas
Credit: Garden State Hiker via Creative-Commons CC-BY 2.0
New Jersey barrier island

Should New Jersey allow houses to be built in flood-prone areas along the Shore? Which parcels should the state defend from rising seas? And will better preservation of dunes and beaches make it easier for coastal residents to withstand flooding and bigger storms?

Those were among the questions posed by staffers at the Department of Environmental Protection in its latest session seeking public input for a raft of new regulations that will implement Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent Executive Order 100 to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.

In the third such session since Murphy issued the order in late January, DEP officials on Monday outlined existing land-use regulations on topics such as flood zones, stormwater management and renewable energy, and asked an audience of about 50 people to comment on possible updates that would meet the order’s requirements.

The regulatory reform process is called Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJ PACT). Earlier public sessions focused on monitoring and reporting greenhouse-gas emissions and ways to reduce emissions.

Building with climate change in mind

Possible new rules on building in flood zones could include limits on certain types of development to allow for the new realities of climate change, replacing current regulations that don’t address increased flooding threats, officials said.

Proposed rules on “freeboard” — the height of a building’s ground floor above flood level — could increase from the current 1-foot minimum.

“Green” building standards are another potential area of improvement. While current rules are silent on environmental standards like green roofs that can support plantings, or white roofs that reflect rather than absorb heat, the rules could be rewritten to require those measures.

Kati Angerone, associate commissioner for science and policy, said Murphy’s order, and an administrative order issued at the same time by DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, were designed to update the rules in light of the science of climate change.

“Those orders were motivated by some very good science,” she said. “We are seeking how to integrate climate-change considerations into our rules.”

Underpinning the need for new rules on coastal resiliency, officials said, is the latest forecast from Rutgers Climate Institute for sea-level rise in coming decades. The Jersey Shore is likely to see seas rise by 0.5 to 1.1 feet from 2000 to 2030, and from 0.9 to 2.1 feet between 2000 and 2050, according to the forecast, published last November.

How high could water rise?

By the end of the century, seas at the Shore are forecast to rise as much as 6.3 feet from 2000 levels, under a “high emissions” scenario, in which global fossil fuel use continues to grow unchecked, the Rutgers forecast said.

Until 2050, seas will rise at the forecast rate regardless of any cut in fossil fuels use, Angerone said.

“What we know from this report is what is predicted to happen between now and 2050 cannot be changed,” she said. “This is dramatic and this is sobering. Climate change is here and will continue for many years.”

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society, welcomed the possibility that new regulations will address the dunes, beaches and wetlands that have sometimes been sacrificed for development, making the Shore more vulnerable to the sea-level rise and storm surge.

But Dillingham, one of many environmental advocates at the meeting, said the DEP failed to identify the underlying principles of its new rules such as whether it was seeking to protect people, defend public infrastructure or help natural systems like coastal marshes withstand the effects of climate change.

Still, he credited officials for kickstarting a tough conversation over how to control development of coastal areas that are becoming more vulnerable as seas rise.

“The big question is going to be: Do we continue to build intensively along the coastline or do we start to make plans to build our towns somewhere else that’s less at risk?” he asked. “They’ve opened the conversation, and it’s a difficult conversation since we have 150 years of development patterns in risky areas.”

Still building in coastal zone

Last year, a study by the national real estate firm Zillow and the Princeton-based research group Climate Central showed that about 4,500 New Jersey homes were built between 2009 and 2017 in areas that are vulnerable to the kind of flood that occurs once every 10 years. The new homes were added in the so-called risk zone at almost three times the rate in safer areas, and were the largest number in any coastal state, the study found.

Despite the prospect that the new rules will cut back on new coastal development, the business community is comfortable with that idea so long as it’s based on data rather than assumptions, said Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

“There are obviously areas of the state where people should not be living, such as the Passaic River basin,” Cantor said after the meeting. “We have to learn how we’re going to live in an environment that is changing but with more challenges.”

But he said New Jersey is “not retreating to Pennsylvania,” and will not abandon Jersey City or Hoboken because of their flooding issues.

Asked whether the business community accepts the idea that there has to be less development in areas that are vulnerable to coastal flooding, Cantor said: “If they base their decisions on sound science and good public policy, I think we’ll be comfortable.”

The rules are due to be written this spring, proposed in the late fall or early winter and then adopted within a year.