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Leadership Matters – How DEP Buried Report on Coastal Storm Risks

DEP Neutered Its Own Coastal Management Professionals and Programs

Climate Adaptation Work Like the Proverbial Tree Falling in the Forest

Commissioner Martin should be called before legislative oversight hearings

During a hike in the woods yesterday, I got a call from a reporter asking about my various strong criticisms of the State’s lack of preparedness and planning and response to “Superstorm Sandy”.

One question he asked was whether there were technical Reports available and whether NJ had conducted pilot studies within defined geographic zones.

I mentioned a series of global warming, adaptation, coastal hazard assessment, and vulnerability assessment work that had been done recently that documented and warned about the problems we were now experiencing (all had been previously posted with links here).

For a pilot study, I referred him to the Delaware Bay study.

No secret to regular readers here, my conclusion was that all this good work and warnings were being ignored and worse, that the Christie administration was making risks even worse by various deregulatory and pro-economic development policies (and hijacking the CAFRA and State Plan’s land use planning orientation into a corporate economic development strategy).

Under the Christie DEP policy, had the real estate industry not collapsed, there would have been hundreds of more homes built in hazardous coastal locations and millions more in storm damage.

Later, as I walked, upon reflection I realized that all my various criticisms were unfair because they ignored very important work DEP’s Office of Coastal Management recently did on this set of issues (dated 3/15/12).

So, how could it be I wondered, that I was not aware of and some how simply forgot to even mention this work? After I even recently filed an OPRA request for it and written about the issues many times?

Here it is - and it’s right on point:

Coastal Community Vulnerability Assessment Protocol (CCVAP) is a GIS-based methodology to assist land use planners, hazard mitigation planners, emergency managers, and other local decision-makers in the identification of their community’s vulnerability through virtual mapping. By applying the methods defined in CCVAP to the pilot communities, areas were identified where built infrastructure, sensitive natural resources, and special needs populations overlapped areas of potential inundation. This vulnerability mapping supports community efforts to make the connection between the potential consequences of sea level rise and inundation to their vulnerability – ultimately to guide the community for resilience planning.

Getting to Resilience is a questionnaire developed as a non-regulatory tool to help coastal communities build capacity for resilience to coastal hazards and sea level rise. The application of the survey was intended to highlight positive actions already underway within the pilot communities and to identify opportunities to improve local resilience through planning, public outreach, mitigation, and response mechanisms. This questionnaire validates the hazard planning that the communities have begun to implement and identifies opportunities to incorporate adaptation strategies in broader community planning.

(note especially the limit to “local” decisions and the explicit mention of “non-regulatory tools” – any DEP regulation is now taboo!)

This work was like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.

It has been ignored and swept under the rug by DEP Commissioner Martin. Buried in the Bureaucracy.

Now here’s where leadership matters and why “in the weeds” organizational issues are key.

First of all, you won’t find this work anywhere on DEP special “Hurricane Sandy Information” webpage. When an issue is a priority to the Commissioner, it is presented to the public, not kept virtually secret.

Second, you will not find the Coastal Community Vulnerability Assessment Protocol mentioned anywhere in Governor Christie’s Executive Orders, speeches, policy documents, or public remarks. When an issue is a priority to the Governor, he talks about it and it is presented to the public, not kept virtually secret.

For example, you won’t find global warming, sea level rise, storm surge risks included in Governor Christie’s highly touted 10 Point Barnegat Bay Management Plan, yet the Bay was significantly impacted by Superstorm Sandy.

Similarly, like the coastal storm risk issue, there were relevant but generally low profile and downplayed recommendations by Governor’s Nuclear Review Taskforce  regarding flooding and lack of back up power (post Fukushima lessons ignored).

Third, while Martin’s DEP has issued the most press releases ever, on the most mundane and self promotional topics (how can we forget the release on the Polo Classic? - or construction of “Margaritaville?), you will not find any press releases about this March 15, 2012 critically important Coastal Community Vulnerability Assessment Protocol and pilot work along the coast.

Fourth, because there has been no DEP press release there has been little press coverage (I think Kirk Moore of the Asbury Park Press has written a small story or two.)

Fifth, DEP views Coastal Community Vulnerability Assessment as a local responsibility. This is another issue where DEP has abdicated, outsourced, or delegated critical State responsibilities.

Sixth, during storm preparation, in a show of extemely poor judgment, DEP Commissioner Martin found it more important to write a letter to advise local officials about weakening DEP flood hazard regulations than managing real storm risk.

And last, and most importantly, DEP Commissioner Martin has buried the Office of Coastal Zone Management in the DEP bureaucracy.He did the same thing with the Office of Climate Change.

Both those Offices previously were elevated and housed in the Commissioner’s Office and reported directly to the Commissioner. This gave them more resources and influence within DEP.

Instead, while burying climate and the coast, Martin has created several new troubling Offices in the Commisisoner’s Office that report directly to him.

A DEP Commissioner’s priorities matter – coastal management and climate change adaptation were clearly not a priority (and solutions ran counter to Christie policy). 

Commissioner Martin should be called before legislative oversight hearings to explain and defend his priorities – particularly how he hadled the Office of Coastal Zone Management’s Report and pilot study.

  • Why was that community vulnerability Report and pilot study virtually ignored by DEP press Office and regulatory programs, like CAFRA and WQMP?
  • Why were no State funds requested to expand and implement the Report and Pilot study throughout the entire highly vulnerable NJ coast?
  • What are DEP’s plans for assuming a lead State Responsibility in climate change adaptation and coastal vulnerability assessment, adaptation, and risk mitigation planning?
  • When will DEP update flood hazard maps and ratchet down on regulations to prevent putting more people and property in harm’s way?
  • Would Gov. Christie support an end to the CAFRA “right to rebuild” provision?
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  1. Bill Neil
    November 5th, 2012 at 14:12 | #1

    Bill:

    The New York Times had a pretty good article on Nov. 3rd about the issues of coastal planning and what happens after the storm, here at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/nyregion/after-getting-back-to-normal-the-big-job-is-to-face-a-new-reality.html?comments#permid=87:2 and I left three different comments.

    So here’s my take on what you have just written in light of the article, and the general thrust of the more than 300 comments. First, there was general sympathy for government assistance in disaster relief, qualified by anger at those who build so close to the water and run repeated risks, and expect the general taxpayer to pay the bills to mitigate the risks, which is a separate issue from emergency disaster relief. The sympathy for preventing rebuilding in destroyed areas comes from a common sense and taxpayer fairness issue, as well as respect for global warming and the ferocious power of storms along the coast.

    Yet there is tremendous naivete about the ideological/political forces involved in coastal politics. A woman from California said let the private sector soak up the costs, then they would work against building too close to the water, do a better job than the government. I pointed out that her dichotomy didn’t hold: it was private economic forces acting upon the NJ Legislature who led to the guaranteed “right to rebuild” in the same location – NJ and Shore Builders Assoc., Real Estate Industry, and last, but not least, the League of Municipalities, which defended the right of local governments to make decisions free from distant ”
    Trenton,” which couldn’t possibly know the shore as well as local officials.

    Bill, the sad but real truth of the environmental campaign under Governor Tom Kean in 1988, led by his Chief of Staff, Brenda Davis and his point man with enviros and the legislature, Ralph Izzo, was that it never had a chance: it had little or no backing from local shore officials or business interests there, and it ran into less than an “all hands on deck” attitude within the environmental community.

    Readers shouldn’t forget the other two environmental issues competing with the Gov’s attempt to get a Coastal Commission and bill: there was a state wide effort to do state planning – aka The State Plan – and here, strangely in contrast to the coastal bill that Kean wanted, he was adamantly opposed to a state plan with regulatory teeth, what has proven to be a real mistake and tragedy for the state.

    Since Gov. Kean also thought the Mt. Laurel decision on affordable housing was socialism, in retrospect I have to question how serious he was to jump ideological fences and support tough coastal regulations and planning. I look back now and wonder: why the inconsistency and why did he press ahead with virtually no support – the bill never came to a vote in either house of the NJ Legislature, and even otherwise good environnmental Senators, and a key one, like Democrat Dan Dalton, screamed at Dery Bennett and me while we were “in the docket” at the bill hearing: he went on a tirade – I choose the word with care – comparing the bill to Pinelands, which was not unfair, but revealing that a good environmental Democrat wouldn’t support tough coastal legislation because angry property owners had left him feeling the backlash.

    Now the other amazing political thing was that NJ PIRG and the NJ Environ. Federation’s top priority was not this bill or the State Plan, but the Clean Water Enforement Act; so with a coastal bill which began in the Gov’s office and not with the Greens, and with that community split three ways in terms of issues and resources – what did anyone expect? I can honestly say that even with a united community I don’t know if we could have won an effective bill. That’s how tough coastal land use is, with the shore officials and builders enjoying, in military terms, all the advantages of “interior lines” and all the emotional force that comes from defending property right. (And the whole national drift to the Right since 1980 has stregthened the power of property rights at the expense of the public interest and the ability to regulate on its behalf, and nature’s too…it has turned genuine land use planning into a historical museum piece…)

    I have to laugh too; very late in the legislative battle, NJ PIRG made it known to the Gov’s reps. that they would become enthusiastic about supporting the floundering coastal bill – if – if, Governor Kean would support the Clean Water Enforcement Act in return. No deal said the Gov’s reps. I’m cleaning up this telling a bit, but that’s what happened and my account comes from an eyewitness.

    And thinking back now with a lot more environmental and political experience than I had in 1988 – I was a freshman then – it has occurred to me more than once that perhaps Governor Kean never really wanted a coastal bill, but realized it would be a great diversion from the state plan and the Clean Water Enforcement Act, a shrewd political tactic: a tactical diversion. Speculation on my part to be sure; I have no evidence of that, only the retrospective view that the Governor didn’t have a prayer to win this bill and the regulatory positions he was advocating were inconsistent with his positions on the state plan and affordable housing.

    So that’s my primer on coastal politics looking back to 1988-1989 from 2012. Recovering the “standing” – legal and political of the public interest in land use at the coast will be an enormous struggle despite it making complete financial and environmental sense.

    Best,

    Bill Neil

  2. November 5th, 2012 at 14:34 | #2

    Bill – thanks for the NYT article – my internet service was just restored so I missed it.

    Your take on the history of failed coastal planning and land use regulation in NJ is important, and I agree but suspect that that there is worse than naiveté at work in our collective inability to get any engagement in NJ ENGO circles.

    The drift to the right you note has been made far worse, given the Highlands Act – whose opposition has emboldened Christie to be an open hostile force.

    The whole issue has actually become more of a cartoon, as paranoid right wingers – fueled by Koch Bro’s Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party money and organization – have jumped into the battle and ironically attacked Gov. Christie’s State Plan (redesigned from a land use plan to an explicit corporate strategic economic plan) as a socialistic UN based subversion of good ole exceptional USA, USA USA sovereignty and freedom!

    Going forward, I am not at all optimistic that there will be ANY organized ENGO or government response – on either global warming or coastal issues.

    I agree with Naomi Kline’s analysis that the right recognizes both the stakes and the ideological parameters of the debate and that explains their denial and organized hostility. Losing a few houses on the Jersey shore won’t make a dent in all that.

    Rather, I see a continuing series of worsening disasters, followed by private sector abandonment and capital flight.

    We end up with Detroit on the Atlantic.

  3. November 5th, 2012 at 14:58 | #3

    @Bill Neil

    Bill – see my prior response -= and I found this from the NY Times article very interesting, suggesting a very new form of “creative destruction” and “gentrification” – completely new factors in urban economics!

    “Some downtown building owners privately expressed fears that in places like Lower Manhattan — which has blossomed over the past decade and where the World Trade Center site is being rebuilt — insurance rates will climb and bankers will impose more stringent requirements for construction loans.

    In the most flood-prone areas, the question is what should and should not be rebuilt. In recent years, the Bloomberg administration has aggressively promoted waterfront development.

    Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said: “We shouldn’t stop building on the waterfront. People want to live on the waterfront.”

  4. November 5th, 2012 at 15:02 | #4

    @Bill Neil

    Bill – adn equally facinating – adn predicta ble was Gov. CHrisite’ reactionary ideological reflexy – no GOVERNMENT! Private choices! – despite the fact that Government passed LAWS that established a so called “:right to rebuild:

    As he toured his state’s wreckage, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, emphasized the charms of the Jersey Shore and declared that people do not “just pick up and walk away.” At the same time, Mr. Christie said it was up to homeowners with ruined homes, not the government, to decide whether to rebuild or sell their property to the state for conservation.”

    And Democrat Senate President Sweeney’s tepid remarks – while in the correct vein – come with zero conviction or backup:

    “Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat and president of the New Jersey Senate, said: “We just can’t rebuild it the way it was. The worst thing to do is to have this experience and not learn from it.”

  5. Bill Neil
    November 5th, 2012 at 15:22 | #5

    I thought you’d find some interesting things in there, Bill. Although I never thought about my land use work in New Jersey in these terms – because nothing in the environmental movement of the time encouraged this outlook – I’ve come to see land use planning and regulation – as in the Pinelands or Highlands – some of the best efforts the nation has seen – as the application of Social Democracy to politics of real estate markets, with both the public interest and nature gaining a new standing, legally and in terms of practical results.

    And by Social Democracy I mean, in a general sense, the spirit of the American New Deal, which good and practiced socialists of the time denounced as not going far enough, and that perspective echoed, as you have cited, in the outrageous claims of the Right about what Obama stands for: the truth is most responsible people on the left don’t see anything of that in Obama – Matt Taibbi’s recent take on Bill Moyers being a representative viewpoint.

    So what I am saying is that the fate of good land-use planning and regulation in the United States has suffered the same fate as the defense of our social democracy as represented by the New Deal tradition. If the NJ Coast can be seen as Polanyi’s horror story writ large for nature – nearly the complete dominance of the real estate market – the “gold coast” over nature and any fair sense of the long term cost to the public of its ratification and defense – the right to rebuild and the costs of permanent beach replenishment, which, whatever it does at a specific site is hard to contain – because which community wouldn’t want it…given the new realities, it will emerge as a war of all against all, New York City will be at the gates of public money in DC, and which eastern states won’t be there…who will get it, since there will not be enough to go around…and what ironies for the Republican Right and all the austerity Democrats who want to cut back Social Security – the perfect contrast to defending enshrined forever property rights at the coast – no qualifications except those imposed by the private insurance companies – and then watch the attempts to subsidize the rates or regulate the insurance industry in the interests of poor land use choices, which has already happened.

    So in my take, the fate of nature and blue collar workers will arrive at about the same place, and a good chunk of the middle class as well, as Polanyi and Klein have told us: at the mercy of the raw market, which is no neutral tool except in perhaps unusual circumstances – like ten million world wide wheat farmers – and then heading towards oligopoly and monopoly. No wonder that the loudest voices in the NJ Legislature on coastal issues – or any planning issues are those who represent the real estate market. And the Jersey coast gives it largely (but not universally) an upper-middle class or higher bias.

    Thus the fate of land use planning and social and economic democracy are marching in the same direction since 1980, towards the same fate, as you suggested, that of older industrial cities.

  1. November 6th, 2012 at 11:16 | #1
  2. November 10th, 2012 at 11:04 | #2
  3. November 15th, 2012 at 11:53 | #3
  4. November 21st, 2012 at 10:24 | #4
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