SEA BRIGHT, N.J. -- Along the two-lane highway that threads this narrow spit of sand on the Jersey Shore, the Driftwood Cabana Club stands out as a monument to Hurricane Sandy's destruction. Storm-driven waves ripped one building in half. A surge of water tore another structure from its foundation, knocking it on its side.
But the most striking feature of the wreckage laid out here is its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean: The toppled buildings sit on the wrong side of the 10-foot-high concrete-and-rock-seawall that has protected the town for decades, scattered across a stretch of sand that is directly exposed to the sea.
How this exclusive beach club came to be constructed and expanded here, in one of the highest-risk flood zones in the state, offers testament to how New Jersey now finds itself seeking nearly $37 billion in federal disaster relief funds to repair the ravages of Sandy. It also highlights why the state appears uniquely vulnerable to rising sea levels, future hurricanes and their attendant storm surges, with federal taxpayers on the hook for many of the costs.
New Jersey's coastal land-use regulations are conspicuously lenient compared to other states, an investigation by The Huffington Post has found -- so lenient that authorities permitted the Cabana Club to adopt its precarious location between the seawall and the beach. Based on current state law -- the fruit of a political compromise crafted nearly two decades ago -- the club can fully rebuild here, in exactly the same spot. In New Jersey, owners of coastal developments possess unique rights to rebuild in the wake of storms. Whatever nature removes, and at whatever cost to taxpayers, property owners are free to put it all back.
Sandy is now testing the merits of the absolute right to rebuild like never before, resurrecting long-expressed concerns that it sets up homeowners and the government for future disasters. As New Jersey confronts the question of how and where to reconstruct its battered shore, experts warn that the state's land-use laws are likely to perpetuate what has played out here for decades: cycles of reckless development followed by storm-inflicted devastation.
"The status quo is that you just put everything back," said Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner for New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, who worked in the agency's coastal program for two decades. "Looking ahead, we shouldn't be surprised when we see areas damaged again, people hurt, and the same kind of misery we've seen here. Clearly, I hope people realize that's not a good plan for the future."
If New Jersey is to forge a different path, it may require a change in philosophy from its famously pugnacious Republican governor, Chris Christie. Since taking office three years ago, Christie and his appointees have altered the composition of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees shoreline land use, replacing several credentialed experts in environmental science and coastal management with people drawn from the business world.
The department's current commissioner, Bob Martin -- an advisor to Christie's 2009 campaign, and previously an energy and utility consultant at Accenture -- has urged the agency to adopt a "customer service focus" while serving as "a driver for economic growth." He has marginalized the authority of scientists and coastal policy experts, critics say, primarily by transferring them to other offices.
"[Christie has] done the exact opposite of what's needed to be done," said Bill Wolfe, a former Department of Environmental Protection planner and policy analyst who now leads the watchdog group New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "He has been affirmatively promoting regulatory relief and taking away any development, land use planning and infrastructure expertise at the department."
A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection said the agency is led by competent people who serve the public interest. "They are intelligent, they are experienced," spokesman Larry Ragonese told The Huffington Post. "To question their qualifications is really demeaning to a really good and experienced group of people."
Through spokesman Michael Drewniak, Christie declined requests for an interview. Drewniak rejected claims that the governor has undermined coastal protection, even as he acknowledged that Christie has sought to streamline the environmental protection agency, whose regulatory bent he termed "onerous and suffocating."
If developers manage to retain the right to rebuild here in Sandy's wake, that would merely continue the longstanding mode that has governed construction on the Jersey Shore for generations. The state's coastline has long been one of the most densely developed in the nation, given its accessibility to wealthy pleasure-seekers in the major metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia. With real estate fetching a premium, development interests have time and again joined forces with local governments to defeat proposed state regulations aimed at limiting construction along vulnerable stretches of the shore.
"People opposed every one of our measures because short-sighted people say 'Let's enjoy it today, don't worry about tomorrow,'" said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican who proposed a coastal commission in the 1980s in an ultimately failed bid to curb excessive development. "You just can't do that as a state, or you have to expect that sooner or later you're going to lose that game."
Real estate interests have managed to trump warnings about excessive coastal construction with a pair of counter-arguments: They are merely satisfying the market's demand for oceanside living. Stopping the bulldozers would be bad for the economy.
"People want to locate next to the shore," said Leonard T. Connors Jr., a former homebuilder and state senator who has served as mayor of Surf City since 1966. "When we had the opportunity to direct people away from the shore, we didn't do it. The fact of the matter was that it was good for business."
The federal government has spurred coastal development, Connors added, by subsidizing flood insurance and extending the promise of disaster assistance for those who wind up in harm's way.
Now, the accumulated bill for the Jersey Shore's unbridled development has effectively come due.
The Christie administration has estimated that Sandy destroyed or seriously damaged some 30,000 businesses and homes across the state. Business losses accounted for more than $8 billion, according to the governor's estimate, while repairs to infrastructure, schools and other publicly-owned property have been pegged at nearly $16.4 billion.
In addition to seeking federal emergency relief funds, New Jersey stands to exacerbate strains on the National Flood Insurance Program, a taxpayer-subsidized fund that has absorbed nearly $18 billion in debt following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita seven years ago. The Government Accountability Office has long rated the flood insurance program at "high risk" -- a reflection of the fact that the federal government is on the hook for potentially enormous losses following major natural disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the program, declined to estimate the value of Sandy-related claims in New Jersey. But the program insures more than $41.3 billion of coastal property in the state, according to federal data -- the third-highest in the nation behind Florida and Louisiana.
Many experts say Sandy presents an opportunity to rethink New Jersey's future development patterns. Some argue that the most sensible approach would be to pull back from vulnerable coastlines and relinquish some real estate to nature. But already the pressures are building -- from homeowners, and from municipalities hungry for property tax revenues -- to put everything back the way it was.
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In the tiny oceanfront community of Mantoloking, N.J., where many homes are worth upwards of $4 million, Sandy delivered surges of water that cut a gash through the town. Only days after the storm, the state rushed in to fill in the breach with sand.
New Jersey's guaranteed right to rebuild following storm damage stands out as a highly unusual provision, according to a Huffington Post review of coastal laws in more than a dozen states on the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
North Carolina, for example, generally bars rebuilding in the same place after a structure is substantially damaged by a storm. Florida and Alabama typically require state reviews before approving the rebuilding of coastal structures damaged in major storms. Several other states, including South Carolina and Maine, require that property owners pull back from the ocean as much as possible following hurricane damage.
Experts describe New Jersey's express right to rebuild as the single most significant impediment toward limiting the state's vulnerability to future storms.
"The idea of putting it down on paper like that is strange, that's not good," said Orrin H. Pilkey, an emeritus professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University, who has probed the dangers of building near disappearing shorelines. "It gives you no flexibility. If people want to rebuild, they can."
Sandy was powerful enough to upend whole communities, but whether it will prove potent enough to change how New Jersey manages its shore remains an open question.
"Any reasonable person looking at the coastal development laws in New Jersey should have expected the level and type of destruction that we saw," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group based in Sandy Hook, N.J. "This is sort of a judgment moment: Are we going to pursue the kind of policy where we move out of areas that have been heavily damaged? Or are we going to rebuild everything back in the same place that it was before, and expect a different outcome?"
In the days and weeks after Sandy, Gov. Christie acknowledged a need to "learn from where others have made mistakes in the past," as he put it during a press conference last month in the state capital of Trenton. He has reached out to the governors of hard-hit Gulf Coast states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, where memories of Katrina may be useful, seeking counsel on how New Jersey ought to respond to Sandy.
But in an interview last month with an Atlantic City radio station, Christie appeared to signal that the latest storm to sweep in off the Atlantic would not alter New Jersey's traditional mode of shore development.
"There is no choice but to rebuild," he said.
Long before high-rise condos and resorts sprang up in more familiar hurricane zones like South Florida and the Gulf Coast, vacationers on the East Coast flocked to New Jersey's sandy shorefronts and barrier islands to escape from crowded cities.
Yet even as the Jersey Shore took off as a destination for gambling, bathhouses and boardwalk entertainment in the late 19th century, owners of oceanfront resorts and hotels were already noticing eroding shorelines that put expensive real estate at risk.
Local governments began erecting seawalls and jetties in an effort to combat natural forces and protect waterfront property. But that intervention came at a steep cost. Efforts to armor coastlines with seawalls often had the opposite effect, increasing erosion as waves crashed into hard structures and carried more sand away. Jetties and groins trapped sand in some places along the coast, yet they also robbed nearby beaches of incoming sand, causing even greater deterioration of shorelines.
By the 1960s, the New Jersey shore claimed distinction as both the most developed coastline in the United States and a budding ecological disaster. Noted landscape architect Ian McHarg highlighted the rapid development of the Jersey Shore in his seminal 1969 book Design with Nature, a widely read critique of environmental planning. "Houses are built upon dunes, grasses destroyed, dunes breached for beach access and housing," he wrote. "Ignorance is compounded with anarchy and greed to make the raddled face of the Jersey shore."
Coastal researchers coined the term "New Jersey-ization" to describe the folly of human intervention along the shore. By 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had classified 81 percent of New Jersey's coastline as being in "critical" condition from beach erosion.
"We became a laboratory for how not to do it," said Wolfe, the former Department of Environmental Protection analyst.
One of the state's first attempts at regulating coastal development came in 1973, as the legislature approved a coastal permitting program intended to secure oversight of construction near the shore. Known as the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act, the law was designed to encourage land use patterns that would maintain economic development "within the framework of a comprehensive environmental design strategy."
But the law included a gaping loophole: While large industrial developments and public works projects along the coast were thereafter regulated by the state, residential developments of fewer than 25 units were exempt. Eager for resulting tax revenues, coastal municipalities used the loophole to say yes to myriad real estate projects.
The result was a building boom distinguished by one distinct feature: The Jersey Shore exploded with 24-unit developments.
Soon after, state-commissioned reports began to sound the alarm about the hazards of increased development on fragile coastline. One such report on beach erosion produced by Rutgers University in 1977 concluded that far too many homes were being placed at risk of damage from storm surge and waves.
"Discouraging residential or commercial development in a high-risk erosion area is clearly the most responsible policy," the report concluded. Yet the authors acknowledged that beachfront areas were prime real estate in adding a prescient note of caution: "State managers may expect to encounter a considerable amount of opposition to their attempts to preserve these districts by local developers."
Beginning in 1980, the state Department of Environmental Protection championed legislation aimed at prohibiting the rebuilding of severely storm-damaged homes and businesses near the beach. The proposed bill triggered a veritable insurrection, as shore residents, politicians and real estate developers banded together in opposition.
A coalition of mayors on Long Beach Island pooled money for legal assistance and lobbying, hiring the international public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to plead its case to the media and politicians in Trenton. Outrage over the proposal provoked discussion of a South Jersey secession movement by some local officials.
"The bill amounts to confiscation of private property without compensation," Larry Masi, an Ocean City, N.J., resident who led one of the citizens' groups that opposed the bill, told The New York Times in 1980. "We believe the state policy aims at the removal of people from the barrier islands altogether."
Masi, who sold "destination resort properties" on the Shore in the '80s and '90s, today expresses no regrets about the position he staked out 30 years ago -- even in the wake of Sandy's destruction. If the state opts to prohibit development in some areas after the storm, he said, the affected property owners are entitled to compensation.
"You can't just come along and say because we had a big storm, we should just wipe everybody off the barrier islands," Masi told HuffPost.
Connors, the longtime Surf City mayor, recalled being astounded at the thought that the state could take private property after a storm.
"That was the biggest abomination that ever came down the pike," Connors told HuffPost in a recent interview. "That's something out of Adolf Hitler."
Following months of protests and raucous public hearings, the state abandoned the proposal. For real estate developers, so began a run of triumphs over environmentally motivated restrictions on building.
In 1984, the owner of the Driftwood Cabana Club -- the resort in Sea Bright that now lies in ruins -- undertook a major expansion, replacing a one-story building containing a few dozen basic cabanas with a two-story structure housing 134 luxury cabanas.
Back when the club had first opened, in the late 1950s, the state's coastal oversight was minimal, allowing building to commence with little inquiry. But three decades later, the proposed expansion tripped the state's scrutiny -- not least because the facility lay in a clearly designated flood zone, and on the ocean side of the seawall.
The Department of Environmental Protection noted that the club sat within a high-risk coastal area and asserted that the project required a state permit, because it exceeded 25 units. The owners challenged that finding, maintaining that the cabanas constituted less than full units, which meant the department lacked the power to regulate.
The state sued to halt construction in a case that would go all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court. There, the justices ruled that the project could go forward, adding that the state's coastal development law was "confusing and misleading." That ruling echoed along the shore, encouraging continued development.
In the mid-1980s, Gov. Kean led another charge to rein in excess development.
He was concerned about the mounting risks of storm damage on people and property, and also about water pollution as sewage systems were constructed across growing swaths of coastal land. He sought to create a coastal commission that would enhance the state's oversight and impose new permitting requirements.
The New Jersey Builders Association joined with local elected officials in shore communities to argue that the new agency was an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that would impede development. The commission never came into being.
"We were the enemies of the American dream, the ones bringing extra costs and red tape," recalled Bill Neil, who worked as an environmental advocate at both the American Littoral Society and the National Audubon Society during the battle over the coastal commission. "Local officials in New Jersey have some of the greatest financial power in the United States to create wealth through zoning, and that power is magnified at the coast. They weren't going to cede that power to bureaucrats in Trenton."
The New Jersey Builders Association and the Shore Builders Association did not respond to requests for comment.
Frustrated by the opposition to his commission, Kean signed an executive order in 1988 halting more than 1,600 developments along the coast, making nearly all new projects subject to state review. Developers in Cape May County filed suit. The state supreme court later ruled that Kean had overstepped his authority, and allowed construction to proceed.
By the time of the court's ruling, Kean was out of office. The coastal commission that never was would linger as one of his biggest regrets.
"I had been pretty successful over eight years with the legislature," Kean told HuffPost in a recent interview. "But on that one I had the builders and the lawyers and everyone else against me, and I just ran out of time."
(Story continues below timeline.)
BELOW: A timeline of coastal development in New Jersey.
Even when the pressure to slow coastal development came from Washington, New Jersey's developers managed to carry the day.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have denied flood insurance to new developments in high-risk coastal areas -- an attempt to limit the federal program's exposure to liabilities from storms such as Sandy. Lobbyists representing New Jersey coastal towns sprang into action, exerting pressure on the state's congressional delegation to halt the proposed law. First, the Senate softened key provisions. Then, the bill died altogether.
As pollution-fed algae blooms and high levels of bacteria in the sea prompted the closure of some state beaches during several summers in the early '90s, efforts to limit development were reinvigorated. The drive gained momentum as potent nor'easter storms inflicted damage. By 1993, a coalition of state legislators was introducing a bill to close the 25-unit loophole in New Jersey's coastal development program.
Yet again, builders associations and local government leaders denounced what they portrayed as a state power grab.
"The bureaucrats want to run us off the barrier islands," Bradley W. Henson, the municipal attorney for Long Beach Island township, told The New York Times in 1994. "The threat of a storm is not enough incentive to get people to pick up and leave, so they're coming at us with legal controls and disincentives that lower the value of private property."
The legislature ultimately eliminated the loophole under provisions that went into effect in 1994, but also inserted a compromise measure that has kept millions of people perilously close to the water's edge: Residents were given the absolute right to rebuild homes destroyed by storms.
"The right to rebuild regardless of the cause of damage," said Mauriello, the former Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, "that provision was a tough one."
'THIS IS NOT PERMANENT'
Given that most of the Jersey Shore was built out long ago, new developments tend to be constructed on the backs of old ones. Families buy up small bungalows erected in the 1940s and 1950s and tear them down, taking advantage of state laws that allow property owners to construct new houses on the same sites with minimal review.
That's what Steve Masceri did a decade ago, as he sought a comfortable summer escape from his home in Bucks County, Pa. He bought a modest home a block from the ocean in the town of Ortley Beach, N.J., demolished it and replaced it with a three-story home.
Building requirements allowed him to construct the home on a foundation about three feet off the ground. Hardly any of his neighbors built any higher, neglecting to raise their foundations or construct atop pilings -- typical measures to protect against the reach of the ocean.
On a recent Sunday, Masceri brought his three boys to Ortley Beach to survey what was left of the home he built: a cinder block foundation buried in sand amid chunks of asphalt dislodged from Ocean Avenue.
Pounding waves had crashed into Masceri's house as Sandy tore through, ripping the home from its foundation and catapulting it down the street. Video footage shot by friends revealed that the roof had landed more than 15 homes away, in the middle of the main highway in town.
The surge pummeled the beachfront section of Coolidge Avenue. All that remained nearby were shards of debris and the remnants of wood and cinder block foundations.
"Even now, I can't really comprehend what actually destroyed that house," Masceri said. "I just can't understand how water could do that."
Al Sica, whose family has been constructing beachfront residences on the barrier islands of New Jersey for more than half a century, built Masceri's home. The destruction in Ortley Beach was "a unique situation," Sica told The Huffington Post, dismissing his own responsibility for the damage. "The force of the water was unbelievable. It was like nature trying to find its home."
Asked why he did not place Masceri's home on pilings, Sica said no one had conceived of a storm powerful enough to tear homes from their foundations. He built the home according to all local standards, which didn't require construction on pilings, he added.
"Sandy never happened before," he said. "It was never anticipated."
CLICK on the graphic below to view the breakdown.
But a storm such as Sandy had been anticipated in models and studies dating back to the 1970s.
A strong nor'easter storm in 1962, known as the "Ash Wednesday Storm," lingered for five high-tide cycles, killing 14 people and injuring more than 1,300 along the coast. A state Department of Environmental Protection report from 1981, referencing the 1962 nor'easter, predicted that "future severe storms will undoubtedly result in far heavier tolls in lives, injuries and property damage.
"There have been hurricanes that have had major impact in this area," Gary Szatkowski, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Mt. Holly, N.J., station, told The Huffington Post. "And we're not talking about stuff that happened in the 17th century. There's data out there."
Despite the looming questions about where to rebuild after the storm, Sica argues that no one should be "penalizing homeowners" by prohibiting them from rebuilding in storm-hit areas. Sandy's destruction wasn't due to failings of building codes or land use planning, he asserts.
"They did what made sense at the time," he said. "I don't think they had the information to look forward and see what the consequences would be."
New flood maps that FEMA plans to release in coming months will mandate minimum elevations for new construction. But many homes that sustained less than 50 percent damage will be allowed to rebuild as they were, according to state and federal law.
For many residents of the Jersey Shore, flood insurance will compensate them for their losses. The National Flood Insurance Program was instituted in 1968 to provide federally subsidized insurance to homeowners, after many private insurers fled the business, citing high risks. For decades, the program has been accused of encouraging irresponsible development in flood-prone areas by bestowing an inflated sense of protection.
The program's discounted insurance premiums fail to reflect the true risks, critics argue, resulting in a distorted coastal real estate market: With the largess of the taxpayer as a backstop, buyers are willing to pay more for coastal properties than they otherwise would, driving up values.
Owners of many older homes, built before FEMA completed a nationwide series of flood-risk maps, have received generous subsidies through the years. Until recent reforms, homes remained eligible for discounted rates even after they flooded repeatedly. These so-called repetitive loss properties comprised only about 1 percent of all flood insurance policies, yet they produced 25 to 30 percent of all claims in terms of dollar value.
Even homeowners paying "full-risk" rates often pay less than they should, according to the Government Accountability Office, because many flood maps across the nation are decades out of date.
Flaws in the program were laid bare in 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita triggered record numbers of claims, forcing the program to borrow more than $20 billion from the U.S. Treasury. Congress passed new reforms this summer aiming to phase out some of the subsidies, including those for second homes, businesses and structures that are more than 50 percent damaged, but the program remains $18 billion in debt.
Masceri, the Ortley Beach homeowner, is still waiting to hear from FEMA on his flood insurance claim. He is expecting his rates to go up significantly if he rebuilds.
He assumes he will be allowed to return, though he's less sure about his neighbors across the street, whose homes were practically touching the dunes before Sandy. Much will depend on whether the state and federal government pay to build back dunes along the beach, he said.
He is disinclined to blame anyone for the wreckage of his home -- not the builder, not the government, not his desire to live alongside water -- impressed instead by the sheer magnitude of the hurricane.
"I don't know if there's anything I could have done with that house that would have prevented it," he said. "It would have had to have been 10 feet off the ground, I guess."
Even if he does return, he now sees himself as among the last generations likely to be drawn to life by the shore, as sea levels continue to rise and the ocean lays claim to the land.
"The ocean doesn't really give a damn about us being there, or my property value or anything," Masceri said. "This is not permanent. My hopes are maybe to rebuild, and hopefully my kids can go down there and enjoy it, and maybe their kids. But I don't expect much more than that."
CHRISTIE AT THE HELM
Gov. Christie has yet to detail a comprehensive vision for Jersey Shore development, now that the topography has been abruptly refashioned by Sandy. Like many political leaders in the wake of a disaster, he has focused largely on the emotional significance of what has been lost, making references to his childhood along the Jersey Shore and his desire to bring it back for future generations.
"It's a part of the cultural heartbeat of our state," Christie said during his interview with the Atlantic City radio station. "It's a huge part of the economic engine of our state."
Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said it would be "premature" to go into specifics about how to rebuild hard-hit communities, adding: "I'm not prepared to give you song and verse today on the future of all matters related to rebuilding. All of these complex considerations are under way in the administration, and we'll be making these very important policy decisions going forward."
Drewniak pointed to Christie's appointment of Marc Ferzan, a former federal prosecutor and executive assistant attorney general in New Jersey, to head recovery efforts. The appointment is a sign of the governor's resolve to tackle such issues in a serious way, he said.
Larry Ragonese, the spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, affirmed the traditions of post-storm life on the Jersey Shore. "It is your property and your right to rebuild," he said. But he also nodded at the possibility of new protections, and a consideration of a measured retreat from the water's edge.
"Maybe you need some type of new dune system," Ragonese said. "Maybe you need seawalls. Maybe you need elevated homes. Maybe you need some buyouts for people who may not want to go there. Those are all kinds of things that will be considered over the next months to few years."
Some experts assert that New Jersey and federal taxpayers cannot wait for a few years, describing Sandy as the sort of crisis that presents an historic opportunity to reconsider development policy -- the sort of crisis that can easily be squandered.
"It's very hard to do wise rebuilding -- to increase the resiliency and decrease the vulnerability -- during a recovery process," said Philip Berke, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina who specializes in disaster mitigation. "It's very difficult to make fundamental changes because people are pressing, and want to get back to normal."
As Christie describes the shore in terms of the state's heritage, and as the rebuilding talk intensifies, some are concerned that momentum for reconsideration is diminishing.
"What Sandy does is it presents an opportunity that we're afraid is going to be missed," said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a non-profit group that advocates responsible land-use policy. "The concern is that the trend will be 'Pick yourself up by your bootstraps and rebuild what we have,' instead of thinking about the increased risk we're going to be facing over the next couple of decades and beyond."
Others fret that Christie's reorganization of the Department of Environmental Protection has stripped the agency of the scientific expertise and experience needed to reshape coastal management.
"They sort of cleaned house over the past few years, in terms of the management at DEP," said Mauriello, the former commissioner. "A lot of the folks who had been there and developed programs were either shown the door or moved to other, less relevant roles."
The department's commissioner, Bob Martin, brings a business consulting background -- a marked contrast from past Department of Environmental Protections secretaries such as Lisa Jackson, who now heads the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration. She had training as a chemical engineer, and years of experience in environmental regulation. Martin brings long experience working on energy and utility issues with the corporate consulting firm Accenture.
"We will work hard at restructuring the permit process, work to get responses out the door to individuals and businesses as fast as possible," Martin said in a press release announcing changes at the department in 2010. "We want to treat people and businesses coming to the DEP as valued customers."
In 2010, Martin scrapped the Office of Climate Change -- which had been doing research on sea-level rise -- and renamed it the Office of Sustainability and Green Energy.
Martin shifted the longtime head of the Department of Environmental Protection's coastal management program, Ruth Ehinger, who has a master's in oceanography and led state efforts on coastal adaptation, to a position in the Fish and Wildlife department. Coastal management was transferred to a broader category of land management, which is headed by Marilyn Lennon, who has business and consulting experience with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and Key Span Corp., a natural gas company that has since merged with National Grid.
Two other top policy experts who had worked on climate change issues, Jeanne Herb and Marjorie Kaplan, left the administration and now work at Rutgers University.
Lennon, Ehinger and Herb declined to comment. Kaplan said her position at Rutgers was a good career opportunity, while declining to comment further.
Drewniak, the Christie spokesman, described the changes at the agency as a necessary adjustment following years of excessively stringent environmental oversight.
"Its regulatory regime had become onerous and suffocating in a modern, competitive society like New Jersey has to be," Drewniak said. "We have a governor who loves his state and loves his natural resources. It's a simple political narrative to make it seem like we've done something sinister, and it's a false political narrative."
Every coastal state faces a tricky balancing act between environmental concerns and pressure from developers. What stands out in New Jersey is the degree to which local governments -- whose coffers depend largely on property taxes -- have the power to determine what can be built.
In North Carolina, home to an extensive chain of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, state environmental officials long ago concluded that final decisions on where development can go should not be left to individual communities.
"It's extremely tough at the local level, politically," said David Owens, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina who developed some of the state's first coastal management programs in the late 1970s. "The economic and political interests for short-term gain are such that it is really, really hard to do this and sustain it over a period of time. You've got the tax base, you've got jobs, you've got folks you know whose livelihoods and homes are affected by these decisions."
North Carolina created a statewide Coastal Resources Commission -- one similar to what Kean had proposed for New Jersey -- and tasked it with analyzing the most vulnerable areas along the coast, while deciding how development should proceed. Coastal counties are required to submit land-use plans to the state detailing how they will respond and adapt to changing conditions in the wake of hurricanes.
North Carolina does not allow rebuilding in the same place after a home or business is substantially damaged by a hurricane. Instead, it requires that property owners comply with new setbacks from beaches. The legislature recently carved out a few exemptions, but they apply to fewer than 200 structures, according to the state.
Setbacks in North Carolina and South Carolina also keep larger developments such as high-rise condominiums farther back from beaches, on the rationale that smaller, single-family homes can be relocated more easily as beaches erode and sea level continues to rise.
Studies have consistently shown the effectiveness of beach setbacks in minimizing storm and flood damage. A FEMA report following Hurricane Floyd -- which hit North Carolina and other parts of the east coast in 1999 -- found that storm damages cost half as much when structures were situated more than 30 feet back from a shoreline. When buildings were more than 100 feet behind a shoreline, the damages were less than a third of those for structures within the first 30 feet.
"Coastal setback regulations can reduce flood insurance claims, disaster assistance payments and economic loss for the property owner," the report concluded.
Unlike New Jersey, most states on the Atlantic require permits and additional state approval in order to rebuild in the same location after being damaged in a coastal storm. Rhode Island institutes an automatic moratorium on rebuilding after storms damage structures.
Not all states have a top-down management approach. Texas delegates much of the authority for coastal decisions to local municipalities and counties. But each community must submit a plan to the state in order to receive certain funding for ecosystem restoration such as dune enhancement or wetland improvements. As part of those plans, communities must discuss how to acquire property that encroaches on public beaches and dunes.
New Jersey is cognizant of the experiences in other states. Growing awareness of the pitfalls of rising sea levels and storm surges reached these shores long ago, but it has yet to alter the workings of power.
"There's lots of data and there's lots of analysis," said David Kinsey, who used to head the Department of Environmental Protection's coastal management division and is now a visiting lecturer at Princeton University. "The hard stuff is confronting the political will issue, saying that the shore is important, but the shore is a hazardous place to live and play. We can keep on doing it, but at a cost. So let's figure out what the reasonable cost is and make the changes that are necessary."
Here in Sea Bright, change has come not from Trenton or Washington, but via a sustained rush of water whose consequences remain on display.
The disjointed remains of the Driftwood Cabana Club lie severed on the ocean side of the seawall, with bits of appliances still visible in the wreckage.
The club's owner, Michael Stavola, did not respond to requests for comment. A Facebook posting still proclaims: "We will rebuild Driftwood!"
Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long said that Driftwood was one of seven such seaside clubs that had been destroyed during Sandy -- out of eight total in the town. She declined to discuss what will happen to the clubs next, and whether it would be wise to rebuild them in front of the area's seawall, saying that decision was best left to the state. But she pointed out that cabana clubs have occupied the shores of Sea Bright since the 19th century.
"I don't accept the argument that it's not possible to build for the elements, because I believe it is," she said.
But Long also suggested that the time has come to rethink development on her stretch of the Jersey Shore.
"We can't let folks put things back the way they were," she said. "That's just not smart. If they're going to go back they've got to be sustainable and survivable."
Experts describe Sandy's legacy here as a battle between nostalgia and enlightened coastal management, as the tendency to preserve what was here before collides with awareness of the mounting dangers.
"There's this tendency to look at the pictures and say, 'This boardwalk is gone, this amusement pier is gone. They've been here a hundred years. We've got to put them back,'" said Andrew Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. "But a hundred years is nothing in the geological history of these islands. So instead of looking back, we need to look forward and understand that a lot of stuff can go back, but not everything can go back, and it can't go back exactly how it was. That's called change, and we have to accept it."