New Jersey lawmakers tackle Sandy recovery, coastal issues
Legislators from across New Jersey have introduced dozens of bills aimed at helping residents affected by Hurricane Sandy as well as making changes to how the state rebuilds and manages coastal areas.
Few of the bills introduced will survive intact and many are likely to be combined, something that is typical of the legislative process, some state representatives said.
One proposal would establish a coastal commission to manage land use and environmental regulations on a regional level.
Another would allow counties to take over maintaining beaches as long as municipalities all agree.
Utilities could be required to fortify major infrastructure items such as water treatment plants and power substations in flood zones.
The Department of Environmental Protection could be required to update the Shore Protection Master Plan, which was last updated in 1981.
Payouts to beachfront land owners who claim newly constructed dunes have lowered their property value could be limited.
“I think there are a lot of good starts on some of these things,” said Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. “You’re trying to work with a lot of the various stakeholders that obviously have input.”
However, Whelan said, there still are some holes where help is needed, namely assisting second-home owners who suffered damage during the storm as well as small business owners. Both groups, he said, do not qualify for federal aid.
One bill that could help small business owners is one introduced by Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, giving a sales tax credit to small businesses that had losses from the storm.
Whelan is the sponsor or co-sponsor of several bills related to rebuilding, including one that would require municipalities to waive certain zoning requirements for residents who are trying to rebuild their houses to new flood standards. That bill already has some municipalities and land use experts trying to sort through the nuances to make sure the state doesn’t inadvertently create loopholes, said Margate Solicitor John Scott Abbott. For example, Abbott said, a homeowner may want to tear down an older storm-damaged house and rebuild in the same footprint, but more recent local laws double the amount of space required between the structure and the sidewalk.
“I think it’s going to be very messy,” Abbott said. “Nothing is ever perfect, legislation-wise.”
Some of the bills harken back to proposals that have been floated around for years, including the prospect of a coastal commission, which was first suggested in the 1980s. Peter Barnes, D-Middlesex, introduced a bill earlier this month to establish such a commission as a way to coordinate recovery from the storm. The commission would control planning and development approvals along with shore protection systems and oversight of aid money related to rebuilding, according to the bill.
"We would be making sure that all the best practices are used to combat disaster floods and minimize future damage," Barnes said in a statement. "We need to make sure all the charm and uniqueness of this area of New Jersey is preserved, but we also need to do it the proper way so we're not spending money to rebuild the same areas every few years when better planning would have served us better.”
Whelan said he supports the idea of a commission that provides scientific and policy guidance, but not one that has broad regulatory powers.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he would not support a commission with broad regulatory oversight.
“I get very nervous when someone in Trenton proposes a new layer of bureaucracy with very broad powers,” Brown said. “I think our local towns are better equipped to make the rebuilding decisions to fit the needs and expectations of local residents.”
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