Towns tasked with fighting climate-change impact

State offers ‘toolkit’ for integrating land-use law to strengthen against storms, flooding and more
Credit: (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
Oct. 30, 2020: A vehicle kicks up a wake as it drives through a flooded street in Ocean City, NJ.

New Jersey environmental officials on Thursday unveiled a “toolkit” to help the state’s 565 local governments integrate climate change into their land-use policy.

The Department of Environmental Protection warns local officials to expect higher temperatures, heavier rains, rising seas and droughts when setting rules on how property may be used. It also offers guidelines on how to assess the vulnerability of population centers, buildings and infrastructure.

This toolkit is designed to help municipalities build planning teams, engage the public, develop a strategy and track their progress toward resiliency. Their strategies may include enhanced building and construction standards, as well as retrofitting, elevating or replacing existing structures and infrastructure, the report said.

And it offers tips on “equitable adaptation” that involves socially vulnerable populations in new land-use policy and urges local officials to put equity at the “forefront” of planning decisions.

The new document follows a warning by the state’s chief resilience officer, David Rosenblatt, that municipalities would have to take most of the responsibility for climate planning, and that they should not expect significant funding or advice from state or federal governments.

Shifting risk to local level

Rosenblatt said in January that state planners are “looking at a transfer of risk” to the local level in light of the seismic differences coming with climate change, and which are expected to accelerate in coming decades.

On Thursday, Rosenblatt said the inclusion of climate change into planning will help towns adapt.

“Decisions by local governments and regional planning agencies about zoning, redevelopment, housing, open space, and capital investment will have dramatic implications for the vulnerability of the natural and built environments,” he said. “Integrating climate change into these decisions and all planning efforts will ensure investments anticipate the conditions of tomorrow, making it easier to adapt as climate continues to change and sea level continues to rise.”

In April, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration released its plan for how New Jersey should respond to climate change, recommending massive shifts including moving some people to higher ground, educating the public and forging an “all hands on deck” approach by government.

Assessing vulnerability to the effects of climate change is now required for new master plans by a change in the state’s Municipal Land Use Law, signed by Murphy in February. The law also directs towns to examine the vulnerability of future development, and to include ways of mitigating natural hazards caused by climate change.

More state funding needed

Mike Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, welcomed the new document but argued that it can’t work without more state funding for local climate initiatives.

“We appreciate that the state is responding to the requests for guidance and assistance from local officials, who are the ones on the ground in the efforts to combat climate change and promote resiliency,” Cerra said in a statement.

“This is a very good first step, but a strategy is only that without execution. Without appropriate funding, the law signed by the governor earlier this year is an unfunded state mandate. We hope to work with the department and the Legislature to provide the necessary assistance to turn plans into reality,” he said.

The toolkit lists several possible sources of federal funding, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Transportation, as well as state sources that include the Infrastructure Bank, the Economic Development Authority and the DEP. At the local level, potential funding sources include stormwater-utility fees, bonding and even user fees like beach badges, the document said.

According to an assessment of the changes to the Municipal Land Use Law by the Office of Legislative Services last year, an increase in spending for the required vulnerability assessment would be “marginal” at both state and local levels. It said the additional work required for the local master plan would likely be done by existing planning staff, although some towns might need to hire outside consultants.

The OLS also noted that towns are only required to update master plans every 10 years, and that only updated plans are affected by the new law.

Keeping door open to state aid

Towns have the option of working with state planners on climate adaptation, the new document said. They can earn a “Plan Endorsement” that offers help including technical assistance, direct capital investment, priority for grants and low-interest loans.

Meanwhile, the DEP’s Acting Commissioner, Shawn LaTourette, warned that developers of property in future flood-prone areas will be subject to new regulations requiring them to declare those properties’ vulnerability.

“We are not necessarily building in the places and the ways that will enable them to stand the test of time, and so we have to begin changing that,” he said, at a webinar held by the nonprofit New Jersey Future. “That doesn’t mean telling people all the places they can’t build and all the things they can’t do, but it does mean we should be climate risk-informed in how we pursue that.”

LaTourette said the Jersey Shore is likely to see 2 feet of sea-level rise from 2000 levels by 2050 regardless of efforts to cut carbon emissions, and that the gain could be around 5 feet by the end of the century if the world makes only moderate emissions cuts.

But moving to a clean-energy economy will bring opportunities as well as challenges, said Jane Cohen, executive director at the Governor’s Office of Climate Action and the Green Economy. Cohen told the event that the state’s new Council on the Green Economy will provide a “road map” on the economic benefits of the change.

“Its’s really key to how the governor is thinking about our state’s approach to climate change,” she said. “To make sure that the economic opportunities are going to folks who are transitioning from traditional energy jobs to family-sustaining jobs in this new economy, and that we are opening up new and diverse pathways for a new set of people.”

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