Sandy aid at issue in Trenton

Posted: March 06, 2013

Suzanne Davis, 46, of Ortley Beach, whose lagoon-front home was ripped to shreds by Hurricane Sandy, has a simple formula for New Jersey lawmakers weighing legislation on recovery aid.

"I have two words for them: Send money," said Davis, who has been living with her daughter in Toms River while spending $150,000 of her savings to fix her ravaged home.

A Senate-Assembly joint committee began hearing testimony on nine bills Monday.

"I can't wait for them to figure it all out, because I have a home and a business I need to get up and running before summer," she said. The storm also wiped out $120,000 in inventory from her home-decorating business, she said, and she has not seen a dime of recovery aid.

The measures the lawmakers are considering include: increasing a proposed contingency recovery fund from $40 million to $140 million; temporarily doubling the amount the state contributes to beach replenishment projects; and curbing court awards to homeowners who sue over losing million-dollar oceanfront views when dunes are built for shore protection.

State Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex) opened Monday's joint meeting of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee and the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee by noting that the $40 million Gov. Christie proposed for additional Sandy relief is about half what the state spent to rebuild after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

"That was the very first time that the State of New Jersey got into the catastrophic relief business," said Smith, who chairs the Senate committee. "While . . . Floyd was devastating, it was not as devastating as this storm. . . . Right now, we seem to be relying on the kindness of strangers."

Smith and State Sen. James Whelan (D., Atlantic) are sponsoring a bill to use an additional $100 million in state funds for Sandy relief.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth) said in an interview after the hearing that the Legislature should work with the governor's office to determine the amount of state aid to devote to Sandy recovery. Although damaged areas may need additional state money for relief, the billions of dollars in federal funding that may be coming will give communities a "pretty good head start. You can't just drop a $100 million request" on the state, she said.

But Whelan argued that too many people struggling to rebuild are finding that they do not qualify for federal aid.

"There are going to be gaps," he said. "Renters, second homeowners . . . I know small-business owners in Atlantic City who couldn't afford flood insurance, so they went bare."

A bill sponsored by Whelan in the Senate and Grace Spencer (D., Essex) in the Assembly would require consideration of increased property value for homes built near constructed dunes. The increased value would be considered when determining compensation for condemned beachfront property.

The construction of dunes along New Jersey's 127-mile coastline has long been a bone of contention. Opponents say the berms don't mitigate damage (but do block expensive ocean views), while supporters contend the barriers protect properties against extensive flooding and damage.

Months before Sandy hit, a state appeals court awarded a Harvey Cedars couple $375,000 for loss of their ocean view after the government built a 22-foot dune in front of their home. The couple claimed the construction lowered their property's value.

Perhaps the most controversial testimony came from a former New Jersey environmental protection commissioner, now working in real estate, who reopened the rebuild-vs.-retreat debate when he contended that Sandy provided an opportunity for the government to "pull back" on Shore development by purchasing flood-prone properties from waterfront homeowners.

"Where the homes are not there as a result of the devastation, that's the opportunity where we can get folks out of the hazard and restore the property to the natural state," said Mark Mauriello, who headed the DEP under Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

"Start offering folks a solution that doesn't involve rebuilding in the same area. I've talked to families in Ortley Beach who want out," he said.

Even while facing uncertainty about future flood insurance regulations, homeowners like Davis are resolute.

"If I waited for the government to tell me what I should be doing, I'd probably be living at my daughter's house for the rest of my life," she said. "For now, this is my home, and this is where I will stay."


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at philly.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.

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