Home rule made it easy for towns to act fast after Hurricane Sandy. Local municipal officials quickly hired their own contractors to clean up debris and get services up and running.

But as the state turns to long-term issues of protecting the shore from future storms, home rule could become a hindrance.

Proponents of home rule say the practice puts decisions in the hands of those most intimately familiar with a town’s needs — the town itself. But critics contend the practice leads to higher costs and results in some towns making decisions to the detriment of their neighbor.

“Home rule was nice when we could afford it,” said former Gov. Thomas Kean, who battled legislators and local officials on the issue when he was in office in the 1980s, even launching the first effort for a coastal commission that would have broad power over shore development. “Now it raises property taxes, increases the cost of everything we do and makes it very hard to make decisions affecting more than one town at a time.”

And, critics warn, not talking to your neighbor could make you more vulnerable to storm damage in the future.

“On a simple planning level, the kind of impacts we’re talking about with sea level rise and climate change, they’re bigger system impacts and they don’t respect political boundaries,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a planning-advocacy group.

Concerns about home rule have been at the heart of several bills in the state Legislature aimed at helping some New Jersey communities rebound from Sandy. One such bill, which would transfer beach maintenance and operation to the counties unless towns said they wanted to retain the power, has prompted intense debate in some areas.

Officials from some shore towns and coastal counties have railed against the bill, saying the towns are best prepared to manage and maintain their beaches, not the counties, because the towns already have the systems in place.

Environmental and some policy advocates support the bill because, they say, the state needs to take a more regional approach to managing coastal resources.

The bill has cleared Senate and Assembly environmental committees and heads to the floor, where both houses must vote by Jan. 13 or the bill dies.

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, himself a staunch opponent of home rule — calling the practice “archaic” and “extremely expensive” — said that he had not spent much time examining the bill. But, he said, if a deal between the beach towns and county proved to reduce costs and maintain safety, he would support the measure.

“I most certainly would be in agreement for regionalizing just about everything if they can show it’s cheaper, more effective and more efficient,” Levinson said.

However, supporters of home rule say there are already enough mandates in place at the state level regarding shore area land use, and towns that want to work regionally can if they so choose.

League of Municipalities staff attorney Ed Purcell says the Coastal Area Facility Review Act, first adopted in 1970 and significantly amended in 1993, already gives the state broad power over how coastal communities manage development and resources.

“CAFRA has taken away the ability of municipalities to regulate a lot of issues surrounding building along the shore,” Purcell said.

Additionally, Purcell said, towns already can share services if they want, and some already do talk to their neighbors regarding shore-protection planning.

“Municipalities are getting a lot better at working with each other,” he said. “From a planning perspective, municipalities are the eyes and ears on the ground in these hundreds of shore communities and often are in the best positions to make decisions about planning.”

Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther agrees.

“The decisions made closest to the homeowners and residents of the community, I believe, are the best in terms of facing a long-term plan,” Guenther said.

However, Guenther said, communities should work together on larger issues, such as shore-protection programs, elevating roads or protecting evacuation routes so they can better leverage resources and influence to get projects done.

“A county or regional approach may be the best as we decide on some ideas about becoming stronger and more resilient from future storms,” he said.

Margate Mayor Michael Becker leads a town that has become a face of the argument for home rule when it comes to shore-protection systems. In November, Margate voters soundly rejected in a referendum starting the city process for dune-building.

“I believe I certainly can deal with the issues that face Margate locally better than somebody sitting in Trenton. That’s just the way it is,” Becker said.

Towns want the management flexibility to meet the specific needs of their communities, and they chafe at tough mandates that eliminate that, said Martin Pagliughi, mayor of Avalon and Cape May County’s deputy office of emergency management director. However, he said, there needs to be some sort of template or guidance to make sure rebuilding and future resiliency are relatively uniform.

“Now’s the perfect opportunity after the storm because there’s quite a bit of (grant money) coming into the state,” Pagliughi said. “If towns are going to be serious about making sure they’re resilient for the future, they’re going to have to look at changing some of their policies.”

While some leaders and policymakers are starting to think beyond town boundaries, the mindset changes need to come from local leaders and residents, said former Gov. James Florio, who fought his own battles over home rule while in office between 1990 and 1994.

“There are a lot of people with a vested interest in maintaining the municipal total autonomy,” Florio said. “What you really need is leaders who talk about the difficulty of maintaining that autonomy.”

This has started to change in some communities thanks to Sandy.

Within days of a sweeping emergency order in January that adopted advisory base flood-elevation maps as the state standard for rebuilding, several Atlantic County shore towns banded together to figure out how to help their residents.

This coastal coalition, which started with Margate and Ventnor, grew to include town and county officials from Cape May, Atlantic and Ocean counties. As issues with the flood maps were ironed out, the group now has become a resource for many South Jersey towns recovering from Hurricane Sandy.

And this coalition is an example of how communities have knocked down home rule silos to talk to one another about the rebuilding and recovery issues they share.

“I don’t think it would have been that way without Sandy, but we are very lucky we have it,” Guenther said.

Contact Sarah Watson:

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