TRENTON — Towns would have to let homeowners raise their homes to heights dictated by new flood insurance rules but wouldn’t have to provide better beach access in return for federal beach replenishment aid under bills that advanced Thursday in the state Legislature.

The Senate Committee on the Environment and Energy approved a total of five bills and one resolution designed to help towns and homeowners rebuild from Hurricane Sandy.

Many of the bills were sponsored or co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who called the package a first step toward the Legislature’s long-term response to rebuilding efforts.

“Hopefully this will help in the post-Sandy era we live in, in terms of rebuilding,” Whelan said.

A bill that requires municipalities to waive certain building restrictions, namely building height limits, for property owners trying to raise buildings to meet new federal and state flood elevation rules drew fire from the New Jersey State League of Municipalities for what group representatives said was an infringement on home-rule rights for towns.

However, Whelan and committee Chairman Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, Somerset, said the bill is intended to speed the rebuilding process for residents. Whelan warned that thousands of homeowners would flood local zoning and planning boards seeking to obtain variances, taking months and costing homeowners thousands of dollars in permit and attorney fees. The bill, he said, would speed up that aspect of rebuilding by eliminating the costly and lengthy process, in which neighbors concerned about their views could hold up rebuilding for others.

“This is not a local issue, this is not a state issue. This is the federal government coming in saying, ‘If you don’t comply with the maps, you’re not going to get flood insurance,’” Whelan said of the homeowners who need to raise their houses. “Homeowners have no choice. They’ve got to raise their house if they want to be able to sell it at some point in the future.”

Some environmental advocates agreed with the bill. N.J. Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel requested that the committee amend the bill to reflect Federal Emergency Management Agency suggestions that buildings be two feet above the base flood elevation, higher than the additional one-foot state requirement.

The committee also advanced a bill directing the Department of Environmental Protection to prioritize beach replenishment projects, but did not include any provision for improving public access to those beaches replenished using federal dollars.

Committee members said they agreed there needs to be better access and will consider the requirement in the future, even requesting advocates to provide information about projects in other states.

Advocates told lawmakers they want to see better beach access in all areas being replenished. The public should have access to tidal waterways not only because public dollars are used for beaches but because federal law grants the public access to the water, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. While existing law requires federally funded projects to provide public access, advocates say agencies and towns don’t do enough to open beaches, particularly around homes.

Other bills approved by the committee were measures allowing counties to take over beach maintenance and operations if towns and counties both agree, and new requirements on how beachfront property owners are compensated if part of their land is condemned for dune and beach replenishment.

The beach maintenance and operations bill would establish a system framework similar to those used in states such as California. It passed the committee with strong support. But an amendment to the bill means the measure would be voluntary. Both counties and towns must agree on any transfer of responsbilitiy for maintenance and operations, Smith said.

“It’s a lot like love. It has to be a two-way street,” he said.

Towns and county officials have told legislators and the League of Municipalities that they oppose the measure, prompting Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, to abstain from voting until she could speak to leaders from Ocean and Monmouth counties.

Whelan said the bill isn’t necessarily for use right now but sets the stage for saving money down the road — particularly for expensive beach replenishment projects.

“I think the value may be as you go forward with a situation where you’re doing a beach replenishment system for Absecon Island — does it make sense for us to get together and jointly apply to the Army Corps Of Engineers,” Whelan said. “I think that opportunity is not there now, but it would be there in the future. Operationally, I can’t imagine the towns would want to give up their home rule.”

Dillingham said the bill helps fill a legislative hole by allowing a regional approach to managing beaches and shoreline protections.

“I do think as we grapple with things like sea level rise and the beaches themselves, we’re going to see increasing costs to holding back the ocean,” Dillingham said. “The fact that you’re creating an option is well done. I think those costs will drive (counties and towns) toward thinking about a regional approach.”

The committee unanimously agreed on a bill requiring that towns calculate the benefit a property owner receives from a beach replenishment or dune as part of any compensation for easements. The bill, sponsored by Whelan, Beck and Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer, Middlesex, likely will be combined with a similar bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Connors, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, Smith said.

Two high-profile cases in the state have resulted in landowners receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars for compensation due to dunes damaging homeowners’ views, including in Ocean City and Harvey Cedars.

“The loss of view was valued at $350,000, but there was no consideration at the protection that dune provided,” Whelan said.

Smith said the prospect of towns having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to every beachfront property owner could preclude dunes from being built.

The Harvey Cedars case will be heard by the state Supreme Court and has drawn interest from numerous lobbying groups, including the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management, which has filed a brief asking the court to consider the overall benefit not just to the community but to the individual property.

“This is our best attempt in order to bring some rationality to the valuation,” Smith said, referencing the Harvey Cedars case. “I’m not 100 percent sure this (bill) is constitutionally kosher. (But) I think this bill will get to the finish line, and it will have a test in court.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

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