TRENTON — A $100 million emergency disaster-relief fund, limited exemptions from local land-use laws and a program for municipalities to sell bonds to help residents raise their homes are among the first state bills introduced in response to Hurricane Sandy rebuilding efforts.
The package, which includes eight bills and one resolution, was the heart of a joint Senate and Assembly Environmental Committee meeting Monday aimed at soliciting ideas for where legislative holes exist.
Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, called the package “a starting point” for how legislators will proceed with long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts. Smith and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, D-Essex, chairwoman of the assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee, asked those testifying to discuss other measures that may be needed to ensure rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy will fortify the coast and protect life and property during future storms.
Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, sponsored the $100 million emergency disaster-relief fund bill, which would provide grants and loans to help bridge the gaps that federal aid or insurance doesn’t cover for rebuilding or further storm-proofing property. This money, Whelan said, would be in addition to the $40 million contingency fund Gov. Chris Christie proposed in his budget address last week.
“Small business owners, they’re not getting help. Second-homeowners are a huge part of the tourism economy at the Jersey Shore. They’re not eligible for help from FEMA,” Whelan said.
Among the most supported concepts was developing a process by which to buy out homes that are most at risk of future flooding and damage.
Following Sandy, communities that suffered severe damage have a “tremendous opportunity” to look at voluntary buyouts along the first row of oceanfront houses to expand dune buffers, former Department of Environmental Protection acting Commissioner Mark Mauriello told the committee.
Mauriello also countered Christie administration proposals that buyouts should only occur on a larger scale, saying that acquisitions in a “checkerboard” fashion have merit because they allow greater flexibility in redeveloping threatened properties along the shore. People in a very high-risk area may choose to rebuild in an area vacated by someone who has already been bought out.
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 storm-damaged houses are rebuilt stronger or moved back from areas with high flood risk.
Coastal engineering and sciences experts, including Richard Stockton College professor Stewart Farrell, stressed the importance of having a wide beach to protect any dune system because extra space slows down storm waves and reduces their erosive power.
Farrell also brought up the concerns many residents have about the Federal Emergency Management Agency 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 expansion of the highest risk velocity zones 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.”
One of the bills would allow counties to take over beach maintenance, an issue that drew criticism from some Monmouth County municipal officials, including Spring Lake Councilman Brendan judge, who warned the measure could affect the individual character of beach towns. Smith said the bill, as written, was strictly voluntary and towns would have to agree to the takeover.
During Monday’s meeting, Whelan proposed the idea that counties take over maintaining the beaches on a large scale, but leave daily operation for towns.
Stevens Institute coastal engineering professor Thomas Herrington said he supported the bill’s concept because it would mean a larger-scale and more streamline approach to managing beach conditions.
“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.
Environmental advocates, including Sierra Club President Jeff Tittel and NJ Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Director Bill Wolfe, urged the committees to take into account planning for how coastal communities should adapt to climate change as part of other legislation.
Wolfe, a former DEP worker, said the committee would have a critical role in crafting climate policy moving forward, including a broader adaptation plan, something that exists in other states. “That’s the kind of work you need to mandate. … It’s not going to happen if you don’t require it or fund it,” he said.
Sen. Jennifer Beck, D-Monmouth, said considering climate change and future conditions is part of the rebuilding effort throughout state government. “What is anchoring all of the decisions is an effort to fund projects that are going to make sure that the next time around, that fewer people will be affected” by storm damage, she said. “The programs that are being rolled out are intended to provide a framework.”
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