TRENTON - A joint legislative hearing on a slate of Hurricane Sandy-related coastal planning and rebuilding issues is happening this morning.
State senators and assemblymen on environmental committees will hear testimony for up to nine bills, each addressing issues related to coastal flood protection or rebuilding.
Among the bills sponsored by Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, is an emergency disaster relief appropriation of $100 million. It would also allow a limited exemption from local land use laws so homeowners raising houses won’t need height variances.
Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate environment and energy committee, said the proposed $100 million was the most important bill of the day. Smith said the $40 million contingency fund proposed in Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address last week is not enough to meet the needs of residents.
Testifying before the committee today is former Department of Environmental Protection acting commissioner Mark Mauriello, Stockton College coastal engineering expert Stewart Farrell and Stevens Institute of Technology coastal engineering professors Thomas Herrington and Jon Miller.
Smith said the committee considers the proposed legislation package as a starting mark for helping rebuilding efforts and future coastal planning efforts.
“We’re willing to look at anything and we want to hear what everyone has to say,” Smith said as he was opening the hearing.
Farrell and Herrington both discussed the importance of maintaining a wide beach in front of dunes to reduce wave energy before the water reaches the dunes.
Mauriello, a flood-protection expert, told the committee he supports all pieces of proposed legislation and also urged the committee to consider altering the right to rebuild provision in existing coastal regulations.
“I’m not suggesting the bill eliminate the right to rebuild,” he said, but rather to incorporate some type of review so that storm-damaged houses are rebuild stronger or moved back from areas with high flood risk.
He also asked the committee consider new regulations for highly urbanized areas where raising buildings is not possible.
Mauriello also noted that following Sandy, the communities that suffered severe damage have a “tremendous opportunity” to look at voluntary buyouts along the first row of oceanfront houses in order to build a wider dune buffer.
Herrington said he strongly supported a proposed bill to allow counties to take over beach maintenance and planning as long as municipalities agree.
“For long-range planning of our coastal resources, we need to go beyond borders and municipalities,” Herrington said. “The coastal processes don’t stop at the border of Atlantic City. They continue into Brigantine and down to Margate.”
Herrington also urged the committees to consider legislation for restoring wetlands as a way to protect bayfront properties. “A healthy marsh system and healthy bay shorelines can actually reduce storm surge,” he said.
Farrell also brought up the concerns many residents have about the advisory flood maps adopted by emergency order in January as the state standard for rebuilding.
While elevations in the advisory maps are not necessarily contested because the data are strong, Farrell said, what is contested is the expanded highest-risk velocity zone to include areas along the bay as well as some interior areas of barrier islands and mainland shore communities.
Farrell said he expects those zones to be scaled back significantly due to a wave analysis model that still has to be completed. Additionally, Farrell said, “bay waves are nowhere near as energetic as ocean waves.”