NJ to push for public backing on climate action with new regulations

Updated rules also likely to require developers to conduct ‘climate impact analysis’ on new properties
Credit: (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
File photo: April 26, 2017, Jim O’Neill walks through a flooded street in front of his home in Manahawkin after a moderate storm, in an area often affected by back bay flooding.

Instead of setting strict new limits on property development, environmental officials are aiming to win public support for action on climate change with updated regulations on mitigation and adaptation next year, a top officer from the Department of Environmental Protection said.

Deputy Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said the department is gathering input from stakeholders including business groups, environmentalists and local government representatives for a wide-ranging update of regulations that implement several environmental laws. The regulations are being rewritten to allow for the effects of climate change including rising seas, heavier rains, bigger floods, higher temperatures, and longer dry spells.

Although developers and builders fear the new rules will tighten limits on where they can build in coastal and inland areas, the regulations are unlikely to do that, LaTourette said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

While no final decisions have been taken, the regulations are likely to require instead that builders and developers do a “climate impact analysis” for any new property that would be built in an area that’s expected to be hit by future floods, given scientific forecasts for sea-level rise and other climate-change phenomena, he said.

“We’re not at a point, nor do we think it’s our role, to tell people: ‘Don’t build here, you shouldn’t build there, you can’t do that,’” LaTourette said. “It is about making folks assess their risk and recognize the risk they are taking on. We are not saying: ‘You cannot build in a future flood-risk area.’ We’re saying that in a future flood-risk area, you need to at least do what you do now in an existing flood-risk area, which is: assess the risk, and notice that risk. It will forever live in the deed record of that property.”

Not a case of ‘big, bad government’

He said the DEP wants to avoid being the “big, bad government” that imposes heavy-handed regulations. To do so, he said, would squander an opportunity through the updated regulations to convince people that climate change is real, and to support official efforts to protect the state for their children and grandchildren.

Although scientists say climate change until 2050 is now irreversible regardless of any cuts in emissions, they say changes beyond that date can be mitigated by measures such as switching to renewable fuels or adopting electric vehicles — both of which may be promoted in a section of the new rules titled “Climate Pollution Reduction,” or CPR.

Shorter-term measures to adapt to climate change will be addressed in a section of the new rules called Resilient Environments and Landscape, or REAL, which will recognize that changes such as 2 feet of sea-level rise at the Jersey Shore by 2050 — as forecast by a Rutgers-led scientific panel last year — are now baked in.

Even if mitigation now will only start to pay dividends in 30 years or more, it’s important to win acceptance of the idea from a public that doesn’t yet get it, LaTourette said. Without lower global emissions, New Jersey’s barrier islands, for example, will be gone as soon as 2100, when seas at the Shore are forecast to be up to 6 feet higher than they were at the start of the 21st century, according to the Rutgers study.

“What’s important right now is that we make sure that people know that time is coming,” he said. “People writ large do not recognize it. By taking these kinds of measures and making people look at what’s happening, you begin to change the conversation, you begin to influence the risk that people are willing to take on.”

The regulatory review process, called NJ PACT, or Protecting Against Climate Change, began with a series of public meetings in February. In the spring and summer, it was due to deliver a report on sea-level rise and issue guidelines on adding climate change to environmental assessments of public-works projects but those deadlines were missed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When will new regulations be ready?

Still, officials have continued to gather input via a series of virtual meetings with stakeholders and aim to formally propose new regulations “early next year,” perhaps in the first quarter, LaTourette said.

Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, argued that the timetable is too tight for far-reaching regulations that will be based on decades-long climate forecasts.

Cantor, who has attended many of the stakeholder meetings, predicted that the regulations will have profound economic effects such as sharply increasing the areas of the state that are classified as flood zones, and so it would be more appropriate if such mandates were achieved through the more deliberate process of legislation rather than regulation.

“We’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about changes that we might see in 30 years’ time; there’s no rush to get it out in 2021,” he said.

Cantor complained that it’s impossible to comment on the DEP’s ideas when you’re muted at one of the virtual meetings, which are typically attended by 50-75 people. He said there’s no opportunity to vote on a proposal, and no means of reaching a consensus among attendees.

He said BIA accepts the need to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects, but he argued that the process should be done on the basis of what works and what is cost-effective. “You have to think these things out, you can’t do them ideologically,” he said.

But Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, endorsed the DEP’s approach to revising the regulations. “DEP is absolutely moving in the right direction in terms of addressing the impact of climate change and trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that we can keep the impacts from getting exponentially worse,” she said.

Coffey, one of the stakeholders, said the NJ PACT process marks the beginning of New Jersey taking climate change seriously from a regulatory standpoint.

No one is suggesting moving the state’s many older developments inland, she said. Rather, climate change means that there should be a new caution about any new development in flood zones, particularly significant development like hospitals or police stations.

The state also needs a fresh assessment of where it makes sense to rebuild properties that get repeatedly flooded, Coffey said.

“We need to second-think that because the floods are going to continue to come, and how many times do we want to continue to rebuild in the same spot and watch it get washed away?” she said. “We need to start to adapt, and that’s my understanding of what these PACT rules will start to do.”