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Some Fear Hurricane Sandy Fixes Could Dictate Development

Wed November 28, 2012 - National Edition

Some advocates fear that rebuilding efforts could take shape on New Jersey’s storm-devastated shore before thoughtful decisions can be made about just how the area should be rebuilt.

The federal government brought thousands of tons of stone, sand and riprap to repair an inlet that the storm ripped open, reconnecting the bay and ocean in a narrow section of Barrier Island in Mantoloking. The state is repairing Route 35 where it was washed away by that breach and two others nearby.

Also, state action has also made it easier to rebuild damaged infrastructure such as roads and water pipes.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, objects to the state’s decision to allow permanent roads, water pipes and other infrastructure to be built to replace ruined ones. He said it makes sense to allow temporary facilities.

“But it shouldn’t be permanent. Now, we’re giving a blanket waiver,” he said. “That’s just throwing money out to sea.”

The state is trying to facilitate necessary repairs, not make hasty long-term development decisions - though that could be a consequence, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “If someone were to build one or two things that were a little more permanent, we’re going to live with that,” he said.

With rising sea levels and more frequent major storms, it’s time to consider whether to rebuild in especially vulnerable areas and to look at further strengthening building codes for places that are rebuilt, scientists and environmentalists say. Similar debates have taken place after major storms on the Gulf Coast, Florida and elsewhere. And they’re going on now on New York’s Long Island.

Officials, including Gov. Chris Christie, talk about the idea of rebuilding with care. Christie has warned that not every place will look the way it did before the storm. He’s said that some homeowners might want to sell their flood-prone properties to the state under the existing Blue Acres program. And his administration has also delayed final approval of the state’s strategic plan, which lays out which areas are ripe for development and which are not, to see whether changes need to be made after Sandy.

Local, state and federal government all have some input into land-use and construction-code issues that will dictate how and where rebuilding is done. Individual property owners will decide whether they want to rebuild. Insurance companies will also have a major role by deciding what they’ll insure and at what premium costs.

“There’s clearly a crossroads here, if we haven’t crossed it,” said David Pringle, campaign director at the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

He said that from what he’s seen, infrastructure repairs so far have been stopgap, temporary measures that could be undone. But he said he’s concerned that the state will put in hard, more permanent roadways, short-circuiting decisions about whether to rebuild some parts of barrier islands. He said Christie, whom his group endorsed in the gubernatorial election three years ago, has made land-use decisions so far that have not been environmentally sensitive.

“We would be unwise to make Route 35 the way it used to be until we decide what kind of development is going to be along that beach,” Pringle said. “One thing we can know for sure is that area is going to be breached again.”

The closure of the major breach in Mantoloking, one of the state’s wealthier communities, wasn’t a permanent solution but is a step toward one, said Stephen Rochette, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ work on the project was requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.

The length of Route 35, the main drag through Mantoloking and several other communities, will be permanently repaired and repaved by mid-December and the sewer and water pipes running underneath it will be fixed, said Joe Dee, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, which is proud of how quickly it’s fixing the devastated road. He said the department expects to rebuild its connection with a bridge in Mantoloking by late January.

“We’re making a permanent repair. This is a breach, it’s not a natural inlet,” he said. “The decision was to say we’re in a state of emergency and we need to get this road restored so we can get emergency vehicles through the area.”

Pringle there should also be conversations about whether areas should have sewer lines rebuilt or replaced with septic tanks, and if sewers should have smaller capacities to limit development.

Those are the kinds of repairs that towns can make now under a permit waiver Christie made soon after the storm.

He said that towns are allowed to proceed with infrastructure repairs now without getting state environmental permits first. They’ll still have to file their paperwork, but will have six months to do it - and he said they will have to comply with building regulations to get federal reimbursements for the work.

“You’re not going to see a $57 million bridge,” Ragonese said. “In six months, you’re not rebuilding your town. You’ll have enough time to get the bids out.”

Ragonese said Christie will end up playing a major role in deciding what should be rebuilt and how.

Kenneth Miller, a Rutgers University professor of earth and planetary sciences who studies sea-level rise, said that despite the talk of a careful planning process he’s seeing inertia take hold and expects development along the shore to look much like it did before Sandy, but with better building standards. For instance, he said, homes, furnaces and air conditioners will be raised higher off the ground in some areas and some will be tied down.

“The people whose houses were destroyed, for the most part, will rebuild,” he said. “They’re going to move forward, which is almost crazy.”

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