Municipalities must now make climate change part of master-plan updates

Critics say new requirement will increase local costs, which should be borne by Trenton
Credit: Sister72 via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0
Flood warning along the coast.

New Jersey’s towns and cities must now plan for climate change after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that requires municipalities to include effects like flooding and higher seas in updates of their master plans.

The law (A-2785/S-2607) puts new demands on local governments to plan for coastal storms, shoreline erosion, bigger storms, flooding, and how they will affect a town’s current and future infrastructure.

Municipalities must now identify critical facilities such as roads and utilities that might be affected by hurricanes or sea-level rise; make plans to sustain normal life in the face of anticipated natural hazards, and integrate climate vulnerability with existing plans such as emergency management or flood-hazard strategies.

The law, signed Feb. 4, also requires local planners to “rely on the most recent natural hazard projections and best available science provided by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection” when they update master plans every 10 years, as required.

The requirements come as the DEP is preparing a raft of new regulations to integrate climate planning into land-use rules. They also follow comments by the state’s chief resilience officer that municipalities — rather than state or federal governments — would play a lead role in planning for climate change.

“We’re going to be looking at a transfer of risk down to the local levels,” said Dave Rosenblatt, the first to hold the position created in 2019, at a conference of state resilience planners last month. “Municipalities need to start planning their budgets to include set-aside stores for future climate-change needs.”

A recent reminder of NJ’s vulnerability

In one measure of climate change, seas at the Jersey Shore are expected to rise by up to 2.1 feet by 2050 and by as much as 6.3 feet by the end of the century, compared with the 2000 level, according to the latest forecast from Rutgers and the DEP.

On Monday, the DEP asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for emergency help with beach repairs after a nor’easter battered the Shore from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2. State officials reported nine of 81 sites inspected had “major” damage to beaches.

New Jersey Future, which advocates “smart growth” and lobbied for the new law, welcomed it as an important step toward planning for climate change.

“Now our communities will design with climate risks in mind, protecting residents, businesses, and public places,” said the nonprofit’s executive director, Pete Kasabach. “This type of forward-thinking land use planning is critical to keeping New Jersey’s residents, businesses, and the environment safe and thriving.”

‘Unfunded mandate’?

But Michael Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said the law will add to financial demands on towns and cities that now have to pay outside consultants to do the required climate analysis.

“Unless the state provides the necessary funding, this new requirement will result in additional municipal expenditures due to the potential need to hire outside consultants with specialized expertise to complete the assessment, and may meet the definition of an unconstitutional, unfunded state mandate,” he said in a statement.

The Office of Legislative Services concluded in an analysis of the bill last September that its measures would result in just a “marginal” spending increase at municipal and state levels.

Cerra said it’s too early to tell how much the law would cost towns and cities, but he held out the prospect of arguing that it represents an unfunded mandate that is not permitted under the state constitution.

“If one town can demonstrate that it’s an unfunded mandate, a challenge can be made to the Council on Local Mandates to overturn the law,” he said.

The bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), said the new requirements on municipalities would help people understand the magnitude of the climate challenge, and help them plan accordingly.

“It gets the municipality in a position to know what it’s facing, and to plan for it, and hopefully to forewarn property owners as to what to expect,” he said.

In response, municipalities may decide to change their zoning so that nothing can be built, for example, in an area that’s expected to be covered by 3 feet of water, Smith said. They may also have to plan for new stormwater drainage and decide whether to build roads in flood-prone areas.

‘Sleeper’ bill with big impact

Smith rejected arguments that the law will add to expenses, saying that many towns already have planning staff or hire consultants when they need them. But he acknowledged that the administrative burden of adding a climate-change section to master plans would be greater for early adopters than for the rest of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities, many of whom will be able to use the early plans as a template for their own.

Calling the bill a “sleeper” that didn’t attract much attention on its way through the Legislature, Smith predicted it will have a significant impact on land use.

“I think it’s going to dramatically change the way in which we do land use, and capital-improvement plans in New Jersey over the next 10, 20 years,” he said.

Murphy views the law as part of the state’s wide-ranging response to climate change.

“Confronting climate change requires concerted action at all levels of government,” he said in a statement when signing the bill. “Local mitigation and adaptation measures are critical to protecting our residents, our economy, and our way of life.”

In another legislative response to climate change, Murphy also signed a law that will allocate about $30 million from the constitutionally dedicated Corporation Business Tax for the state acquisition of lands for recreation and conservation. The total includes some $3 million for Blue Acres, a state program that has bought more than 700 flood-prone properties in vulnerable locations since it began in the mid-1990s.

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society, said Blue Acres funding is designed to be used in concert with planning and regulatory measures to adapt to climate change. The program buys properties from willing sellers, demolishes structures, and leaves the sites as open space that can act as a buffer to future floods.

“New Jersey has chosen wisely to acquire lands to get people out of harm’s way, and increase coastal resiliency,” he said. “This is a strong and necessary policy program.”