Inquirer Editorial: Shore too important for N.J. to take back seat

The boardwalk and the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights lie in ruins after Hurricane Sandy. The mayor says rebuilding the boardwalk is urgent.
The boardwalk and the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights lie in ruins after Hurricane Sandy. The mayor says rebuilding the boardwalk is urgent.
Posted: January 09, 2013

Rather than having a hodgepodge of rules allowing structures so weak that some will either blow or wash away in the next big storm, New Jersey needs to take control of rebuilding along the Shore.

Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D., Middlesex) is writing a bill that the Legislature and Gov. Christie should seize upon to make the Shore stronger and more attractive than it was before Superstorm Sandy smacked it around. Barnes wants to create an overarching state authority that would control construction code standards, planning, zoning, and eminent domain.

Some Shore properties may have to be demolished because they are on top or in front of dune systems. Of course, those owners should be fairly compensated. Too many buildings were destroyed by the October storm because they were built too low, too close to the water, or too shoddily to withstand water and wind.

State control of beach development was proposed by Gov. Thomas H. Kean in 1987. Unfortunately, he met enormous resistance from beach towns whose zeal to maintain "home rule" took precedence over intelligent planning.

Barnes is right to worry that towns would allow post-Sandy rebuilding to proceed haphazardly. Although there are state building standards, enforcement is up to the local jurisdictions. A state Department of Community Affairs review in 2005, sparked by disgruntled condominium owners in the Wildwoods, found more than 100 buildings were not built to code. Many lacked fire walls, alarms, or proper fire exits.

As it raises construction standards, New Jersey should also stop leaving it to the beach towns to protect the Shore. They can't afford it, which is why Wildwood, one of the last free beach towns in the state, is thinking about charging beach fees.

Margate and Belmar also considered raising beach fees to cover costs, but are waiting to see what happens with a bill backed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) that would ban towns accepting state or federal storm aid from charging beach fees.

It makes sense to place the 127-mile Atlantic Ocean coastline under the care of the state park system so uniform standards can be enforced. Barrier-island communities should pressure the state to take over beach cleaning, maintenance, and life guarding.

The beaches and Shore towns account for the bulk of a $38 billion tourism economy that benefits the entire state, so it should be the state's responsibility - not the towns' - to protect the Shore by rebuilding it smartly with an eye toward a safer future.

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