Although the current Coastal Assessment Report — issued in 2011 — still warns about the threats of storms to the coast and the potential, future effects of climate change, the section calling for a “strategic adjustment” away from the water’s edge disappeared after Christie took office, naming Bob Martin as head of the DEP.
“It’s a little unusual for a state that is so vulnerable, that we wouldn’t be highlighting that,” said Mark Mauriello, who served as DEP Commissioner from 2008 to 2010. Although he was appointed by then-Gov. John Corzine, Mauriello had worked at the department for three decades under every governor since Brendan Byrne, and said he considered himself a career scientist, uninterested in politics. Since he’s left, he’s watched what he feels is a disturbing trend of the leadership at the DEP being filled by people from business, real estate, and banking.
“I don’t know any of them, so this isn’t a personal criticism by any means,” he said, “But when I look at folks who manage these important programs in an environmental agency, I really would look for folks who have some experience and background in that field which they’re supposed to manage.”
Mauriello is concerned that since the decision-makers at the top are managing programs and policies without having science backgrounds to inform their principles, they may not fully understand the dangers of coastal overdevelopment. Several other, former DEP employees who were interviewed for this story but did not wish to be identified said they agreed with that assessment, though some felt it’s unfair to point the finger any one person or administration. They said rampant overdevelopment has been occurring for decades, with the backing of governors and lawmakers of both parties.
DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said it’s ridiculous to raise questions about the backgrounds of the department’s leadership. He compares it to a corporation, and said the Christie administration’s goal has simply been to bring in a group of experienced managers to transform it from a well-meaning but overly bureaucratic and ineffective agency to one that can make decisions in a timely fashion. Aside from these top leadership positions, he said the rank and file of the department still includes scientists and experts in their fields who are “as talented and brilliant as ever.”
While Ragonese said he’s unfamiliar with the removal of language from the Coastal Hazard Assessment Report, he said it’s ludicrous to suggest that the DEP is not concerned about development along the coast in the aftermath of Sandy. “The folks who want to sit there in a university, in their office and muse about what could be done… Well, that’s all well and good, and there’s a place for that,” he said, “but we had an obligation to move this state along. And the Governor chose very clearly to rebuild, but to do it better.”
What’s the Hurry?
Mauriello fears that process has taken place too quickly, though. He thinks Sandy gave New Jersey a unique opportunity to refocus its development priorities and re-examine whether allowing construction in the most flood-prone areas is a good idea. But he feels that opportunity has been largely overlooked amid what he calls the pedal-to-the-metal approach to rebuilding. He’s concerned, for example, about boardwalks that have been reconstructed without dunes in front of them to protect them from future storms. And he cites the rebuilding of the Driftwood Beach Club in Sea Bright — which was completely destroyed and pushed over the sea wall — as a “poster child” for poor planning decisions.
“I was down there two weeks ago,” he said, “cruising up that stretch of Rt. 36, and it’s all back, right out on the beach, and I thought, ‘What do we expect to happen?’ The next time we have a storm, are we expecting a different outcome? We probably shouldn’t because we really haven’t changed anything.”
He thinks that in the long run, it’s going to get more expensive and become less likely that the state will be able to sustain its footprint on its barrier islands.
“When you’re talking about these dynamic areas that get battered and are exposed to severe wave action and chronic erosion, you can build it better, and it’s still going to get damaged,” he said. “You can do engineering, you can do beach nourishment, and unfortunately, that isn’t the long-term answer. It’s a bit of a Band-Aid on a big wound, and it will get you through, but at some point, we have to think differently.”
Public opinion seems to be on his side. A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released in early December found two-thirds of respondents in favor of letting state regulators decide which areas can and cannot be rebuilt according to storm risk assessments, as well as allowing towns to impose short-term moratoriums on rebuilding to give them time to develop new plans and codes.
In a Rutgers Eagleton poll a few months later, 62 percent of New Jerseyans said assessing the potential for future damage should take precedence over rushing to rebuild before the summer tourist season. And another Eagleton poll taken at the end of April found large majorities of residents saying they’re at least somewhat supportive of moving buildings back from the waterfront and converting formerly developed land in flood-prone areas into public beaches, parks or wetlands.
But with the Jersey Shore holding an iconic place in the hearts and minds of generations of visitors and residents, as well as billions of dollars of real estate, tens of thousands of seasonal jobs, and a $19 billion tourism industry hanging in the balance, many others felt that rebuilding the shore that existed in their memories and rebuilding it right away was never really a question.
“There is no choice but to rebuild, especially at the Jersey Shore, not only because it’s a part of the cultural heartbeat of our state, but also because it’s a huge part of the economic engine of our state,” Christie said in a radio interview last November. The governor’s words are echoed by shore town mayors and residents like Janice Cune, of Toms River, whose family has owned a house at the beach for over forty years. “You have to love the ocean,” she said. “If you love the ocean, then you want to stay. Some people don’t understand that.”
Scott Gurian is the Sandy Recovery Writer for NJ Spotlight.