With the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaching, New Jersey officials are reviving a plan to make developers and towns consider the risks of future flooding brought on by climate change.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has scheduled two public meetings this week about a rule that could have a major impact on what growth looks like in inland, flood-prone areas.
That puts New Jersey back on track to consider and eventually adopt regulations Gov. Phil Murphy first pledged to advance more than two years ago, after the state abandoned a plan to fast-track reforms amid pushback from builders this summer.
“When we develop, we change where water can go, and when we build a basement that displaces water, now other homes and businesses are flooding that hadn't before,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, who has been urging state officials to move on the rule. “The big piece here is using the most recent data. That is a critical aspect of making decisions about how to build.”
But New Jersey is still using 1999 rainfall maps to plan development. DEP-commissioned studies predict that by the year 2100, precipitation will have increased more than 20%, compared to those maps.
“Our metrics are out of date,” state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said. “We cannot just account for the experience of today, just like we can't be guided by the experience of 1999.”
Plans for the new rule could expand the areas considered flood zones on state maps, making it harder to develop at all in some areas, and requiring new buildings be built at higher elevations in others.
“The time for sticking our heads in the sand is over,” LaTourette said. “Everyone, at all levels of government, needs to have skin in the game, we have to be willing to make sound investments that take time to show their benefits.”
The rule is just one of a series of regulatory reforms Murphy promised in 2020, when he called on the DEP to strengthen its permitting and regulatory process to account for climate change in a pledge called Protecting Against Climate Threats, or PACT.
The state blew past its two-year deadline to adopt these changes this January. The flood rule, which would only affect new inland development, languished behind closed doors for months after the state backtracked on its plan to implement it on an emergency basis this summer, amid pressure from developers. They said such serious changes deserved the transparency and input of the state’s regular rule-making process.
The DEP has made available general guidelines on what it plans to propose, and further described its plans in the public notice for the upcoming hearings.
Under the rule, newly built structures would have to be elevated at least two feet higher than required by current DEP flood maps, but existing development wouldn’t be affected.
The rule would also require applicants for some development permits to use the data from the DEP-commissioned studies about increased rainfall precipitation when accounting for runoff and flooding. Municipalities would have to take those projections into account as well, when updating their own development ordinances.
A coalition of developers, builders and real estate associations raised concerns about the fast-tracking process in a letter to Murphy in June. Labor and real estate leaders said there were already projects in development that would cost more money to re-engineer to meet new requirements, and they said the rule would create new flood zones that could affect 5 to 10% of buildable land in New Jersey.
“The problem with advancing this proposal as an emergency rule is that there are too many unknowns. We don’t know all the areas that will be impacted, how many projects will be affected, or how it will impact infrastructure, low-income housing and redevelopment projects that are policy priorities,” the developers wrote.
The New Jersey Builders Association and the New Jersey Commercial Real Estate Development Association, two of the groups that signed the letter, didn’t return requests for comment.
But environmental advocates continued to pressure the state to take stronger action to build for resiliency in the state, especially as the 10-year anniversary of Sandy and one-year anniversary of Ida approached.
Sandy and the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which hit New Jersey last September, served as two benchmark storms, providing a blueprint for the state’s vulnerabilities.
More than 300,000 homes were damaged or destroyed during Sandy. In response, the state — under Republican former Gov. Chris Christie — required residents to build differently along the coast. He issued new rules that required coastal homes to be elevated or moved further inland.
“It didn’t chase development away at all,” LaTourette said.
Ida, which inundated inland communities, left 30 people dead in New Jersey, many drowning in their homes or cars.
LaTourette acknowledged the state had more to do but said the flood rule could be game-changing for the state.
It’s still unclear how soon the rule could be implemented or whether it will follow the normal process, which could take as much as a year once rules are formally proposed. LaTourette didn’t dismiss implementing the rule on an emergency basis — which his agency can choose to do if the DEP finds an imminent threat to public health or safety — but said residents and businesses deserved time and an explanation on future changes.
“The more we think about the impacts of climate change, and the role that construction has, we have to take into account it is our responsibility,” Marcus Sibley, chairman of the NAACP NJ Environmental and Climate Justice committee, said. He said flooding “impacts people’s entire lives and it creates a tremendous trauma” that the state has a responsibility to minimize.
The virtual meetings will be held Wednesday from 10 to 11:30 a.m., and Thursday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Those interested in attending can register online.