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Saturday, June 15, 2024

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Officials Briefed on Newest Coastal Risk Study

No Lifeguards

By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – In 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) posted in the Federal Register the purpose of its New Jersey Back Bays Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study (CSRM). 
According to that notice, the CSRM seeks to “identify comprehensive strategies to increase coastal resilience and to reduce flooding risk from future storms and impacts of sea level rise.”
The study area encompasses coastal Cape May County, although the county is split between the study’s central region, which claims Ocean City along with the entire Atlantic County coastline, and southern region, from Corson’s Inlet south to Cape May Inlet.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) describes the study area’s total as located behind the barrier islands of Monmouth, Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, and Cape May counties. There is no cost allocated to municipalities for the study. The state and federal governments will split the expense into equal shares.
In May, the ACE presented the project’s status to elected officials in Atlantic and Cape May counties. A 29-slide PowerPoint (https://bit.ly/3pjG0to) guided that presentation. The schedule calls for a public release of the study’s draft report in July, accompanied by public meetings at various points in summer.
The study assesses a high level of initial risk and seeks to mitigate that risk through a series of interlocking strategies, including a significant embrace of natural and nature-based features (NNBF) as a means of providing coastal resilience.
Local measures include the expected use of elevation levels established through zoning and building codes and National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) requirements.
The strategies that most often involve public controversy are structural measures, which, in this presentation, include a potential large storm surge barrier at Great Egg Harbor Inlet, the closure of south Ocean City Bay, and, in places, the use of floodwalls and levees.
The presentation indicates the danger a rising sea presents to the limited evacuation routes out of the county. The issue of evacuation capability may reignite the long-standing push by county and legislative district officials for the extension of Route 55 into Cape May County.
The report, when issued, is to include a consideration of a “system of economic accounts,” including the economic return on dollars spent on the project, specific improvements to environmental quality, impact on regional income and employment, as well as community issues, like potential displacement.
Public opinions on coastal development tend to vary from the two extremes. On the one extreme are those who defend the right to build to the high tideline, expecting protection for their assets. At the other extreme are those who argue for the abandonment of all public and private development on the barrier islands.
The middle ground is wide and subject to significant debate over how large shoreline setbacks should be, the size of beaches, and the management of dunes. Back bay strategies for bulkheads, construction setbacks, and protections for lines of sight and views raise similar disagreements.
The devil will be in the details of the ACE report drilled down to the community level. That detail is not present in the PowerPoint presentation. A proposed schedule leading to an ACE recommendation to Congress is included.
The schedule calls for the release of the draft report in July 2021, followed by public meetings over the summer. The final analysis is to be completed by January 2022, incorporating any changes due to public comment. 
That date, in January, is what the report calls an agency decision milestone. It prepares the way for an ACE report to Congress in April 2023, which will carry the final recommendations for action.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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