As lawmakers consider a package of bills to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy, a former state environmental protection commissioner says the storm provided a golden opportunity to buy out flood-prone homes and move them further away from the water.
Mark Mauriello, who headed the Department of Environmental Protection under former Gov. Jon Corzine, said some oceanfront homes can be relocated further inland on space vacated by homeowners who take buyouts. But Mauriello, who now works for a real estate company, did not propose a specific funding level.
He spoke Monday at a legislative hearing at which lawmakers discussed a package of nine bills to help recover from Sandy, the state’s worst natural disaster. The measures include on aimed at increasing a proposed contingency fund from $40 million to $100 million, one aimed at curbing exorbitant court awards to homeowners who sue over the lost view from dune projects and another doubling the amount the state spends on shore protection projects for the next three years.
Key to that effort is moving at least some homes out of harm’s way, said Mauriello, who headed the DEP from 2008 to 2010, replacing Lisa Jackson who left to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Where the homes are not there as a result of the devastation, that’s the opportunity where we can get folks out of the hazard and restore the property to the natural state,” Mauriello said. “Start offering folks a solution that doesn’t involve rebuilding in the same area. I’ve talked to families in Ortley Beach who want out.”
There has been a rebuild-or-retreat debate in states hit hard by Superstorm Sandy in late October. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed an ambitious plan to buy out entire communities that want to move after being repeatedly damaged by storms.
DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said Gov. Chris Christie supports buyouts of entire neighborhoods that want out, not scattered homeowners. He said the state’s Blue Acres program could be used to handle buyouts but noted the most interest in that program has come from inland areas.
“Post-Sandy, we have started to get some interest regarding buyouts, but it’s not from shore residents,” Ragonese said. “There has been historically little interest by coastal owners to leave their properties.”
State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth County, said there will be no shortage of willing sellers in some spots.
“When you go to Union Beach and they’re taking down four homes a day and they’ve condemned 260, there are some folks who want to rebuild and plenty who don’t,” she said.
Mauriello said not every home needs to be acquired. He described a “checkerboard” approach, in which the homes of willing owners a bit inland from the beach are bought and razed to make way for the owners of damaged oceanfront homes, whose land would remain undeveloped as part of a dune project.
Part of the package discussed Monday by the joint Assembly-Senate hearing includes a proposal to increase Christie’s proposed $40 million contingency fund for expenses not covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to $100 million. State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex County, noted that after Tropical Storm Floyd in 1998 the state spent $80 million on post-storm relief. Sandy, he said, was far more devastating than Floyd and will require more money.
The lawmakers also are considering increasing the amount of coastal protection money New Jersey spends from $25 million a year to $50 million a year for the next three years. The plan could relieve local communities of their share of the projects, which commonly cost local taxpayers $1 million or more.
The proposal was endorsed by Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, who called it an “excellent” idea.
Another bill would require the courts to take into consideration increased property values that protective dune projects create when calculating damage awards to homeowners who sue because their waterfront views have been diminished or lost. The bill is a direct response to a case pending in the state Supreme Court involving a Harvey Cedars couple who sued because a dune blocked their oceanfront view and were awarded $375,000.
Still another bill would relieve homeowners of having to seek planning or zoning variances when they raise their homes to comply with new flood-zone elevation requirements. Several shore towns already have increased the maximum allowable height of homes on their own since the storm.