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Senate committee moves Sandy rebuild bills

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The Senate Environment and Energy Committee spent Thursday morning debating a series of bills that could shape the way the Jersey Shore is rebuilt.

Among the bills released by the committee was S-2680, co-sponsored by Sen. Nicholas J. Sacco (D-North Bergen) and Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos (R-Middletown), that would allow residential and hotel development on piers over large rivers in coastal high hazard areas.

Sacco said current Department of Environmental Protection rules restrict such development in coastal high hazard areas, except in Atlantic City. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new flood zone map greatly expands the parts of the state that fall into that category.

“Right now there are developments ready to go if these regulations weren’t barring them,” he said. “And it seems unfair that someone who has pier construction ready and is willing to develop in that area would be told no they can’t, because of these new regulations.”

However, environmentalists were firm in opposing the measure, saying such development is risky in a post-Hurricane Sandy world.

“There are major environmental impacts (of the piers),” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “And when you put people out on these piers, you’re hanging them out to dry.”

But advocates said the bill would have a limited scope – only about a half-dozen piers. Sacco and the committee also agreed to an amendment that would limit the bill to existing piers, not new ones.

Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Trenton) said she would vote to release the bill, but has concerns that might stop her from voting “yes” in the full Senate.

But the committee’s chair, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway), said the market economy has a built-in means to stop foolish development. He said banks won’t finance dangerous projects.

“Ultimately the institution that’s going to hopefully flood-proof a good portion of the Jersey Shore is not the DEP or FEMA,” he said. “It’s the banks.”

Meanwhile, the committee also moved S-2599, which would require courts hearing condemnation proceedings related to dune construction or beach replenishment to consider the positive property value effects of the added safety provided by the dunes or replenished beaches.

Smith called the bill “our best attempt at trying to bring some rationality to the valuations.”

Also among the six bills and one resolution released Thursday was S-2598. The bill would allow property owners impacted by the storm to rebuild at higher elevations without going through the normal planning and zoning process, a process Smith said would add months of time and thousands of dollars to the rebuilding process.

Michael Cerra, senior legislative analyst at the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said many municipalities are working to streamline the approval process for storm-affected property owners, but he said the local community needs a voice.

“It’s just not the applicant who has a stake in this, but there’s also the neighbors and the surrounding community,” he said.

That argument wasn’t enough to sway committee members, who voted unanimously to release the bill.

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