Environmental Groups Unified in Support of Barnes’ Regional Planning Legislation
[updated, below in text]
Proposed legislation (A3920) to create a 19 member Coastal Commission to oversee land use planning and zoning, environmental regulation, and reconstruction of the NJ shore was released from the Assembly Environment Committee yesterday by a 4-2 vote. The two Republicans on the Committee (Schepisi and Rudder) followed Governor Christie’s lead and opposed the bill. (listen to the hearing here.)
The participatory and deliberative public planning process envisioned by the bill is a sharp contrast to Governor Christie’s governing approach to Sandy recovery.
Christie has consolidated policy and decision-making power in his Coastal Czar, Mark Ferzan, and virtually dictated unilateral “Action Plans” developed behind closed doors by his Department of Community Affairs for spending billions of dollars appropriated by Congress for Sandy recovery. To expedite rebuilding, Christie and his DEP have deregulated reconstruction of infrastructure (in the same vulnerable locations and at the same elevations, repeating the mistakes of the past and virtually guaranteeing future wipeout), exempted rebuilding from DEP permit reviews, and relied exclusively on elevating rebuilding to the new (and inadequate) FEMA Advisory Base Flood Elevations. Christie also has ignored climate change and sea level rise, rejecting them as “esoteric issues” he has no time for.
Assemblyman Barnes (D-Middlesex), the prime sponsor, emphasized that his legislation originally was the vision of former Republican Governor Tom Kean, a man Barnes praised as an intellectual and thoughtful public policy expert and advocate of good government, regional planning, and environmental protection. Barnes spoke highly of how, in the late 1980′s, Gov. Kean proposed legislation to create a Coastal Commission. But that effort, by an extremely popular and powerful governor, was blocked by powerful special interests and the development lobby who then controlled – and still dominate – the NJ Legislature.
In the wake of Sandy, finally recognizing that NJ can no longer rely on parochial local interests and flawed site specific DEP CAFRA regulation, the bill finds that:
New Jersey’s shore area is a vital component of the economy, welfare, and cultural landscape of the State and the existing land use and environmental regulatory system cannot adequately protect the region
The bill drew praise and strong support from virtually all of NJ’s environmental groups, including the typically more moderate coastal and conservation groups that have been close to Governor Christie, including Clean Ocean Action, American Littoral Society, and NJ Audubon Society. Tim Dillingham of ALS gave particularly articulate and compelling testimony. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if these groups mobilize their members in a serious effort to back the bill, which is a heavy lift and will require a major battle to pass (and overcome a likely veto by Governor Christie, if Democrats can get on the same page before the election).
I also supported the bill, but, because this is the beginning of the legislative process and the bill will be amended significantly, did not get into the policy weeds. There will be plenty of time to work with Assemblyman Barnes, the sponsor, who recognizes that his bill will spur much needed public dialogue with diverse perspectives on these critical issues.
But from a big picture standpoint, as I’ve written here multiple times (see this and this and this and this) the bill needs significant revisions to more effectively and explicitly address climate change, vulnerability assessment and adaptation, and protective regulatory policies on water resources, public access, and coastal natural resources. The bill also needs to be expanded to include the Delaware Bayshore, which is already within the delineated CAFRA regulated and federally designated ”coastal zone”
Creation of a Coastal Commission also has been supported by professional planning groups like NJ Future and former DEP Commissioner Mauriello, a coastal expert, both of whom did not testify yesterday, but are expected to support the legislation.
[Update: 5/16/13 - NJ Future Op-Ed on Sandy rebuild "resiliency" does not mention a Coastal Commission. NJF previously testified to Senate Budget Committee on February 11, 2013 in support of a Coastal Commission and they did polling on a regional planning approach. So, it looks like pure partisan politics have over-ridden their judgement in support of good planning and compromised their prior support of a Commission. I suspected that when they did not testify at the hearing. If in fact that is true, i.e. that they do not support a Coastal Commission now, that would be a major blow to their integrity. Just sayin' - end update]
The position of other key coastal players, like recreational and commercial fishing groups, boaters, outdoor recreational businesses, scientists and research institutions, surfers, Barnegat Bay and watershed groups, good government groups like the League of Women Voters, tourism, and the sea food industry is not known at this time, as none testified on the bill.
The bill was opposed by the League of Municipalities and of course the NJ Builders Association.
The League defended local home rule land use powers that the bill would eliminate and shift to the regional Coastal Commission. The League’s planner used surprising harsh language to denounce the bill as a “radical” initiative that would spawn litigation and gridlock, despite the fact that the concept was proposed by a moderate Republican Governor and the bill itself is based on longstanding and extremely successful regional planning bodies in the Hackensack Meadowlands, Pinelands, and Highlands.
Instead, the League recommended an alternative approach, whereby DEP would develop a non-regulatory Shore Master Plan to guide towns and beef up CAFRA regulation. I assume that they were referring to Senator Van Drew’s bill (S 2575) that would require DEP to update the Shore Protection Master Plan.
The League did have one positive suggestion, and that was to hold public hearings on the bill along the shore to seek the input of coastal communities. I’m sure that that will happen and the sooner the better. Legislators should not wait for their annual summer special joint environment committee shore hearings in Toms River – they should move now to schedule hearings on the bill now and through the summer and into the fall.
I urge folks to read the bill and work with one of the many environmental groups supporting the bill.
First step – get a Senate sponsor and get the bill moving in the Senate – perhaps Senator Kean (R) would like to follow in his father’s footsteps and build a legacy – and show that Republicans still care about the environment, are not merely loyal lapdogs of Governor Christie, and want to protect the future of the shore.
More to come on this.
[Update: press coverage:
Kirk Moore, Asbury Park Press: Assembly environment committee releases Coastal Commission bill
Sarah Watson, Press of Atlantic City: New Jersey legislation would create state coastal commission
Tom Johnson, NJ Spotlight: Democrats Want Coastal Commission to Oversee Rebuilding of Jersey Shore - For GOP, bill would just add another layer of bureaucracy, slowing push to restore the Shore
Citing a study by a university planner, Bill Wolfe, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Environmental Employees for Responsibility, warned that the state needs to change its policies. “New Jersey has become the laboratory of how not to develop your coast,’’ he told the committee.
Sorry, the Star Ledger, as predicted, was AWOL and – you can’t make this shit up – too busy writing about the Eagles Cheerleaders shore calendar and Prince Harry and the roller coaster and Angelina Jolie’s breasts. Now, there’s a revealing set of journalistic priorities if I even saw one – it’s called “tabloid”.
In fairness, exactly as I predicted, the Ledger’s shore reporter covered the Supreme Court case and the State House reporter actually wrote TWO stories about bills that moved yesterday, one from the same COmmittee, but curiously did NOT write about the Coastal Commission bill. I don’t think that’s an accident because they are terrible on land use issues and rarely report policy stories, especially those that challenge Governor Christie.