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Extending Approval for State Plan Centers Could Harm Coastal Towns

January 23rd, 2015 by


Mystic Island endorsed center projected flooding vulnerability in 2050 under 1-percent storm scenario

On Dec. 18, 2014, New Jersey Future submitted comments (pdf) to the State Planning Commission (SPC) on its proposed Amendment to the State Planning Rules that would extend the period of approvals for any center designations granted by the commission prior to Sept. 6, 2008, by an additional three years beyond their otherwise applicable expiration dates.

Centers were created in the State Plan as a means of identifying areas most suitable for growth, while environmentally sensitive lands are kept protected. The state government provides incentives such as expedited and coordinated permit review to communities that undertake the planning necessary to create centers.

Centers approved by the State Planning Commission’s center designation process were supposed to be endorsed for a period of six years, whereas those centers that were created through plan endorsement expired every 10 years. Many of these centers would have expired if it were not for three Permit Extension Acts, which extended the period of those approvals. And now, the State Planning Commission’s proposed amendment would extend by an additional three years the period of approvals for plan endorsements and center designations that would have expired on Dec. 31, 2014, or June 30, 2015.

Given the economic reality created by the recent recession and the expense of going through plan endorsement, this extension may appear reasonable at first blush. However, Hurricane Sandy changed dramatically our understanding of how vulnerable our coastal communities are. As climate change accelerates, sea-level rise and the severity of storms, flood risks continue to grow. This means that many coastal centers contain areas at increasingly high risk for flooding and damage to land, homes and businesses.

In an analysis of the Mystic Island designated center within Little Egg Harbor Township in Ocean County performed by New Jersey Future based on sea-level-rise projections developed by Rutgers University, under a projected 1-percent-storm scenario in 2050, 52 percent of the total acreage within the center is likely to be inundated regularly by water (see map). Given these results, which are similar to those in other coastal communities, it is inadvisable to allow the boundaries of these centers to remain as they are currently and to continue to steer future development into these flood-prone locations. In the absence of actions municipalities might take that would be designed to mitigate impacts from future storms, it also may be inadvisable to steer growth to these flood-prone locations.

Instead, New Jersey Future recommends that the State Planning Commission extend center designations in coastal areas for a one-year period, and that during this time the commission assist municipalities in performing risk assessments, including mapping of areas likely to be flooded today and in 2050. These assessments could identify areas and populations that will be at risk and the corresponding maps would guide revisions to center boundaries.

Since New Jersey Future’s comments were submitted a fourth Permit Extension Act was signed in December 2014, which extended the period of approvals issued for center designations statewide for another one-year period, removing the urgency from the commission’s proposal. Regardless, the commission has a timely opportunity to apply lessons from Hurricane Sandy and make the state more resilient to potential flooding and storms associated with climate change, and to use the coming year to update center boundaries to reflect vulnerability to flooding.

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