Rethinking the Shore After Sandy — Approach 3: Restore and Retreat

 Island Beach State Park gives visitors a look at how the barrier island appears without commercial or residential development.(Sandy Levine/for NewsWorks)

Island Beach State Park gives visitors a look at how the barrier island appears without commercial or residential development.(Sandy Levine/for NewsWorks)

The community dialogues called “Ready for Next Time? Rethinking the Shore After Sandy” use an issue guide devised by WHYY and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.

This discussion framework takes the many ideas, arguments and debates going on right now and organizes them into three general approaches or perspectives: 1) Rebuild and Prepare 2) Rethink and Adapt 3) Restore and Retreat.

Today, NewsWorks presents the third of those approaches in detail:


  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Recent storms teach that all our investments in the Shore are at serious risk. To avoid catastrophes more costly than Sandy in the near future, we must begin strategically to reduce the human footprint at the ocean’s edge. In other words, move housing, commerce and entertainment steadily inland through a planned retreat that will be the work of a generation.

Obviously, the impact on property rights and individual livelihoods must be gauged and compensated. But narrow slivers of sand were never meant to be built upon as thickly as we do.

They’re called barrier islands for a reason, and by mistreating them (and ignoring the ocean’s power) we put inland investments at risk. They are also places of great beauty, peacefulness and ecodiversity that deserve to be restored and protected. That should become our generational goal.


Make the evidence about future sea-level rise the foundation for future development policy at the Shore.

 Declare barrier islands and other fragile oceanfront zones off-limits for rebuilding and redevelopment.

 Float a state bond issue to create a state fund, on the model of the farmland preservation program, to buy up properties on the shoreline and put them off-limits for development.

 Use master planning, tax policy and incentives to shift entertainment and retail centers inland.

 Aim to restore barrier islands as nature preserves and public recreational parks by the middle of the century.

 Concentrate any new Shore development in those few areas deemed to represent such economic value they cannot be abandoned.

 Eliminate federal flood insurance for areas that the master plan deems high-risk for development.

Create an enforceable policy for protecting Shore ecosystems and species.


Let’s take the necessary steps while time remains for them to be useful.

Climate change is real; sea-level rise will only increase. Their consequences will be major. They render the status quo unsustainable.

Sometimes resiliency comes down to knowing when and how to retreat, to make a new stand in a new place.

Barrier islands and shorelines were never meant to sustain the kind of heavy development we’ve stuck on them since the middle of last century.

Poor, self-interested decisions by property owners on barrier islands have harmed mainland communities.

Shore communities can no longer expect taxpayers around the state and nation to insulate them from the consequences of risky, unwise choices.

 We need to live with more respect for nature, both its fragile balances and its sometime awesome power.

 Dune replenishment to protect the oceanfront castles of the affluent is a costly losing battle.

 Sandy showed how overdevelopment damages ecosystems and species.

If barrier islands are nature preserves and public parks, the Shore truly will return to being for everyone.

 Being flexible and tactical in allowing barrier island development will not work; greed will take over, and trump planning.


 The dangers of climate change and sea-level rise are hyped.

 People have always been drawn to live by the sand and the sea, and always will be. You can’t legislate against such a deep human desire.

 This is the truly elitist vision, where no one gets to truly enjoy the Shore except bird-watchers.

This approach would be an unconstitutional attack on property rights.

 There is no political will, none, in either Trenton or Washington to provide legal and financial support for such a policy of “planned retreat.”

 This radical environmentalist viewpoint has no respect for the way Shore living is interwoven into the narratives of hundreds of thousands of families.

Tourism is a linchpin of the state economy. This approach is a prescription for high unemployment and lower state revenues.

 New Jersey doesn’t need such an absolutist policy to respond sea-level rise. A series of less radical, adaptive responses can achieve what’s needed.

Government could never direct such a policy successfully and fairly. Better to let market factors (e.g. insurance costs) redirect development over time.

This issue guide was prepared with input from WHYY/NewsWorks partners in this dialogue project, including Creative New Jersey, Sustainable Jersey, Citizens Campaign and Jersey Shore Hurricane News.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal