Opinion: Atlantic Highlands, the Time is Now to Protect our Coast

January 5, 2019
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Opinion contributed by Robert O’Connor

A proposal to build 16 luxury homes on one of the last open waterfront properties on the Bay Shore is currently being considered by the Atlantic Highlands Planning Board.  Developer Steven Denholtz wants permission to build on the 7 acre McConnell tract near the Leonardo border.  Two of the seven acres are in an “AE Flood Zone” – these areas have a 1% probability of flooding every year (also known as the “100 year floodplain”).   Properties in these areas are considered to be at high risk of flooding under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).   In spite of this fact, the Planning Board looks like its prepared to approve the Denholtz application because it meets general building code ordinances.  Denholtz is proposing to fill in some of the flood areas above the floodplain and apply to FEMA to remove them from the floodplain map.   The problem is that these maps may soon be eclipsed by the reality of climate change.

 On November 23rd, 13 federal agencies issued a major scientific report on the climate with dire warnings.  The report states that few coastal communities are rethinking their development patterns in order to avoid the impacts from rising seas and severe weather that the report says are surely coming.  Our current 100 year floodplain maps are based on pre-climate change data and do not account for the new predictions.   Sea levels on the NJ coast are expected to rise between 2 and 10 feet in the next hundred years.  Storms are also expected to be more severe.  These facts would have a devastating impact on the McConnell tract putting any new development at serious risk of flooding.

 As a coastal town resident, I understand the attraction of living on the water- the beaches, the amazing views, the access to NYC via ferry.   Who wouldn’t want to live here?  New Jersey, in spite of being the butt of many a joke, continues to attract people to its shores.  New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country and a whopping 31% of our 5 million acres is urbanized.  And much of that urbanization is happening on the coast.  In response to this pressure, the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) was enacted in 1973 to help control development and protect our shorelines.  But data show that CAFRA has had marginal impact on development.  Even with CAFRA oversight, development in coastal communities and CAFRA zones continues to grow.  Superstorm Sandy revealed just how vulnerable we are to coastal storms and sea level rise – over 74,000 acres of urban lands were inundated causing over $30 billion in damage across the state.   It would seem reasonable that, after the storm, people would have second thoughts about building and living on the coast, but property values have not only rebounded but increased and applications, such as the Denholtz project, continue to be approved at a brisk pace. 

40 years ago the architects of CAFRA had the foresight to realize that our coastline must be protected, but it is clear today that their work could not compete against the powerful forces of development.  We must take up their cause with a new urgency in light of the threats of climate change.  We cannot continue to put homeowners and first responders in harms way.  We cannot afford to maintain and repair infrastructure from storm damage and we must better protect our natural shorelines that are important habitats for a vast array of species that are at increased risk due to habitat loss.  Towns must update their building codes and ordinances to reflect these new realities.  The time is now to stop developing our waterfront and proposals like the Denholtz plan should not be approved.  

Robert O’Connor, Atlantic Highlands
Neighbors for Waterfront Preservation

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