In the beginning of February, NJ Governor Phil Murphy signed into law several pieces of legislation that advance important climate change adaptation policies and measures. Those included new directives on municipal land use and additional funding for the Blue Acres program.
The Littoral Society led efforts to increase money dedicated to Blue Acres, which is intended to reduce the number of buildings in flood-prone areas – such as the coast – that suffer repetitive losses.
The Society supported, through testimony and public organizing, an NJ Future-led campaign for statutory amendments to require municipalities to consider climate change as they undertake periodic land use master plan updates.
According to an article in NJ Spotlight, municipalities must now identify critical facilities such as roads and utilities that might be affected by hurricanes or sea-level rise; make plans to sustain normal life in the face of anticipated natural hazards, and integrate climate vulnerability with existing plans such as emergency management or flood-hazard strategies.
The law also requires local planners to “rely on the most recent natural hazard projections and best available science provided by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection” when they update master plans every 10 years, as required.
The requirement that municipalities plan for climate induced change and impacts is appropriate given that towns in New Jersey and many other states make the most fundamental land use decisions on the location and intensity of growth and development, including in current and future high hazard areas. In New Jersey, environmental laws and regulations are often relegated to mitigating the impact of these decisions (although the Society has argued that this authority is underutilized).
The new requirements may reflect a growing shift of responsibility for risk created by municipal development decisions. Currently, poor coastal development is protected by state and federal funds through the multi-billion investment in beach nourishment, which helps insulate structures perched on the edge of the rising sea. This nourishment is paid for primarily by federal and state taxpayers, rather than the owners of the buildings.
The Governor also signed an appropriation of $3 million to the Blue Acres program, which buys repetitively damaged buildings and returns the land they are on to a natural state. This funding is a direct result of the Littoral Society’s advocacy from two years ago to ensure that the program was funded at a nominally relevant level.
Blue Acres dates back to 1995, but activity expanded sharply after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As of September 2019, the program had purchased approximately 1,000 properties (about 700 since Sandy).
Originally the authorizing legislation for the program allocated only a small percentage of the state acquisition dollars to Blue Acres. However, the Society’s work with legislative champions Senator Bob Smith and Senator Kip Bateman increased the funding level to 10% every year.