Legislators confront post-Sandy rebuilding issues

TRENTON – The Senate and Assembly Environment committees held a joint Sandy reconstruction hearing Monday to examine how to rebuild New Jersey in the aftermath of the storm.

There were seven bills and one resolution up for discussion only focusing on various issues:  Limited exceptions from land use restrictions so structures can be elevated; consideration of increased property value due to dune construction when considering property condemnation, allowing the counties to assume control of beach maintenance, and more.

“We are in uncharted waters here,’’ said Sen. Jim Whelan, sponsor of several of the bills and representative of the Atlantic City area.

“In Atlantic City we had more households hit than any other part of the state,” he said, approximately 9,000, although the severity in some individual cases was not as bad as in northern New Jersey.

“In Atlantic City it was more of a bay event. The dunes held up well.”   

In light of that, he said that because different parts of the state suffered varying degrees of damage, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to recovery.

And Sen. Bob Smith, another sponsor of many of these bills, said the hearing’s purpose in part is to solicit input toward rebuilding and sustaining the state’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry.

He said they hope to solicit ideas to rebuild the Shore and help save tens of thousands of jobs affected by last year’s Superstorm.

“It is a starting point to start the discussion,’’ he said in reference to the bills on the docket.

He said he felt the most important one was Whelan’s S2633, an “Emergency Disaster Relief Act of 2013,” which would appropriate from the General Fund $80 million that may be used to provide assistance to individuals and businesses that sustained property damage or loss as a result of Hurricane Sandy and its associated flooding, plus it would appropriate $10 million to the Department of Community Affairs and $10 million to the Department of the Treasury.

Smith said he believed the $40 million contingency fund referenced in the governor’s budget address last week would not be nearly enough.

One initiative not on the list, Smith said, would be a letter to the governor from the chairs of the budget and environment committees asking the administration for the next three years to increase the state share of beach replenishment funding from $25 million to $50 million and forego the local share.

Assembly Environment Chair Grace Spencer said “we cannot forget that there towns not on the Jersey shore equally affected.”

A crowded roster of witnesses was led off by former N.J. Dept. of Environmental Protection Assistant Commissioner Mark Mauriello who said in regards to S2598 that it would give homeowners important relief from local height restrictions when rebuilding for FEMA elevations.

He touted other bills as well, including measures that provide greater state input into rebuilding properties in terms of location or configuration and in terms of state takeover of beachfront sites to rebuild dunes.

“We need  a new vision and a new plan for the coast,’’ he said in calling for an updated beach master plan.

And he seconded Spencer’s comments about paying attention to non-beachfront, densely developed urban areas such as Newark or Hoboken.

It’s important “we don’t forget these urban communities,’’ he said; these areas will need help to raise structures and they have specialized problems because of their highly developed, close-quarters, older-infrastructure nature.

And Assemblyman John McKeon pointed out that “we are 70 days from Memorial Day,” the traditional kickoff of the summer tourism season, yet many damaged homes are still in their state of devastation, leaving owners wondering how – or even if – rebuilding can be accomplished in the same location.

“Conditions are changing at the shore,’’ Mauriello said: “Sea levels are rising.’’

He said this is the first time in 30 years that he has heard that traditional New Jersey resilience replaced by residents saying they can’t stomach it anymore.

And he said acquisition of some of these properties – as opposed to allowing some to be raised and remain where they are – would end up making the most sense in terms of safety and long-term planning for future storms.

The bills:

S2598: Provides limited exemption from local land use restrictions to allow certain existing structures to be raised to new FEMA base flood elevations.

S2599: Requires consideration of increased property value due to dune construction in determining compensation provided for condemned beachfront property.

S2600: Establishes criteria and requirements for shore protection project priority list and funding from Shore Protection Fund.

S2601: Permits fifth and sixth class counties to assume control and responsibility for operation and maintenance of beaches bordering Atlantic Ocean. Those are the counties of Atlantic, Monmouth, Ocean, and Cape May.

S2601: Repeals law providing CAFRA permit exemption for certain grading or excavation of a dune.

S2632: Concerns financing of water conservation, storm shelter construction, and flood and hurricane resistance projects.

Currently, the governing body of a municipality, upon application to and approval by the Director of the Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs, may undertake the financing of the purchase and installation of renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements made by property owners.  By ordinance, the municipality may provide for a “clean energy special assessment” to be imposed on those properties when the property owner has requested the assessment in exchange for receiving assistance with the initial financing.  Currently, however, the only types of projects eligible for this treatment are the installation of renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements.  Under the bill, water conservation projects, flood resistant construction projects, hurricane resistant construction projects, residential storm shelter projects, safe room projects would also be eligible for a “clean energy and storm resistance special assessment.”

S2633: This bill, the “Emergency Disaster Relief Act of 2013,” would establish the “2013 Hurricane and Flood Relief Dedicated Account” in the Office of the Chief Executive and appropriate from the General Fund to that account $80 million that may be used to provide assistance to individuals and businesses that sustained property damage or loss as a result of Hurricane Sandy and its associated flooding.  The bill would also appropriate $10 million to the Department of Community Affairs and $10 million to the Department of the Treasury.

SR100: Urges U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA to conduct assessment of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Legislators confront post-Sandy rebuilding issues