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Planning Where the State Will Grow Must Take Into Account the Weather

Asbury Park Press, Nov. 30, 2012New Jersey Future Op-Ed Button

By Peter Kasabach

In October 2011 the state Office of Planning Advocacy released its draft State Strategic Plan. The Plan fulfills the State Planning Act’s requirement that the state prepare a guiding document every three years that identifies where and how New Jersey should grow.

On Nov. 13, after over a year and eight public hearings, the State Planning Commission was poised to vote on adoption of the draft Plan. Had the vote gone ahead successfully, the Plan would have become the guiding document for revising regulations and making state investments in growth and development and in preservation of land and vital natural resources.

However, Nov. 13 was barely two weeks after Hurricane Sandy ripped apart the New Jersey Shore and flooded many low-lying urban areas. The governor’s office asked the commission to postpone the vote and to re-examine the draft plan in light of the devastation and the challenge of rebuilding coastal areas.  It’s not certain when the commission will vote.

This re-examination is critical. The governor and the State Planning Commission now have the defining challenge of adding to the Plan a robust framework for ensuring the Shore and other weather vulnerable areas will be made more resilient to such events in the future. But how best to go about this?

Two sections of the Plan deserve particular attention. First are its “Garden State Values,” a list of 10 statements intended as instructions for successful implementation of the Plan. These include things like “Concentrate development and mix uses,” and “Make decisions within a regional framework.” Second are the plan’s four goals: targeted economic growth; effective regional planning; preservation, protection and enhancement of critical state resources; and tactical alignment of government. If the plan is implemented correctly, these are the four anticipated outcomes. But neither the Garden State Values nor the goals acknowledge explicitly the need for the state to address its preparedness for severe weather events.  We believe they must.

The State Strategic Plan is a framework, a guiding document of only 41 pages that promotes sound planning but doesn’t attempt to do the actual planning work. Any changes in it to address the need for resiliency should remain high-level and provide the parameters within which to make changes, but not prescribe the actual changes. With that in mind, below are three suggested additions to the Plan:

  • Add “resiliency” as a Garden State Value. In the face of increasingly frequent severe weather events, the entire state will need to adjust where and how growth occurs in order to protect people and property. A “resiliency” value will serve not only the Shore well, but also areas susceptible to flooding similar to what occurred during Hurricane Irene.
  • Recognize the Shore as a distinct “region” that requires its own plan to guide regional investments in restored and preserved natural systems, protective systems like dunes and beaches, and growth-oriented infrastructure.  The Plan promotes the importance of effective regional planning, and a specific focus on the Shore would present an opportunity to ensure that investments in reconstruction are guided by rigorous scientific analysis and public discussion of the opportunities and threats specific to that area. An updated Shore Protection Master Plan would be one way to provide this analysis.
  • Integrate vulnerability mapping into land-use planning and regulation.  The Plan should direct all levels of government to map areas subject to threats like sea level rise, flooding, storm surges and hurricane-related coastal erosion.  This will make it easier for public investments to be directed to locations where people and property are better protected. 

It’s important that the Plan be updated and adopted quickly, so that its wisdom can guide the more detailed planning and investments needed to rebuild our Shore, and that our rebuilding efforts take into account the increasing frequency, intensity and destruction of weather events in New Jersey.

Peter Kasabach is executive director of New Jersey Future, a non-partisan organization that advocates for responsible and efficient land-use policies. On Dec. 7 at Monmouth University in Eatontown the organization will be co-hosting a one-day symposium on rebuilding the Jersey Shore.

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