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Tristate region needs commission for flood threat, nonprofit says

A new tristate commission — funded by surcharges on property insurance premiums and empowered to select and pay for projects — is needed to counter the threat of rising seas, according to a Regional Plan Association report.

A Coastal Commission for New York, Connecticut and New Jersey would ensure there is a consistent approach to the flood threat 2 million coastal residents will face by 2050— double the number now at risk, according to the RPA, a nonprofit created in the 1920s to spur the area’s “prosperity, infrastructure, sustainability and quality of life.”

The region’s response to climate change has been “slow, sporadic, underfunded and uncoordinated,” the RPA said, partly because so many levels of government play roles.

The new commission would oversee 3,700 miles of coastline — including cities and suburbs — where the infrastructure often has decayed, the report said.

“Restoring wetlands, building sea walls, raising buildings, retrofitting infrastructure and buying out vulnerable homeowners are among the actions that 167 coastal cities, towns, villages and counties will need to consider and find the resources to implement,” the report said.

Scientists and elected and agency officials from all levels of government would run the commission, independently choosing and paying for projects, the RPA said.

“We’d want to make sure that the state, counties and localities feel they have good representation on the Commission,” said Robert Freudenberg, an RPA vice president, by email.

Spokesmen for the three states’ environmental agencies reacted noncommittally to the proposal, promising to review it. So did the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which counts anti-flood projects among its many duties.

Commission members should be appointed by more than one person to ensure a diverse board, Freudenberg said, as similar bodies have done. The report did not issue more specifics on how board members should be selected, to allow the three states more latitude.

Other regional panels have successfully protected the Chesapeake and San Francisco bays, the report said. Additional examples it cited include Long Island’s Central Pine Barrens Commission and New Jersey’s Meadowlands Commission.

(The full report can be found here: library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Coastal-Adaptation.pdf.)

Congress likely would have to bless the new multistate commission, just as it did with the Port Authority, Jesse M. Keenan, one of the report’s authors, who teaches at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, said by email.

The report follows the RPA’s 2016 analysis, which predicted the Atlantic could rise a foot by the middle of this century — and perhaps as soon as 2030 — flooding out 7,000 people who make their homes on Long Island.

Though rising seas chiefly imperil the coasts, Freudenberg said in an interview that Hurricane Irene devastated parts of upstate New York. That storm struck one year before superstorm Sandy hammered the Eastern Seaboard in 2012.

“There’s also a certain amount of ‘We’re all in this together,’ and there’s a certain need to adapt,” he said.

Though Congress approved $51 billion in aid after Sandy, the report warned “it is very likely that future disasters will come with the requirement that states pay a greater share for recovery.”

The surcharges on both commercial and residential property owners’ insurance premiums the RPA proposed would help fill this gap. All three state legislatures would have to enact the surcharges, said Keenan.

Ending the surcharges after 10 years likely would make them more palatable — and help ensure the funds are not squandered, explained Keenan. New York City residents would pay about $5 a month, he estimated.

That would cover the $9.6 billion of post-Sandy improvements the city said it lacked funding for, he explained.

A surcharge estimate for all New York State will be issued next month, Freudenberg said.

New Jerseyans would pay $15 a month to cover an $11.8 billion shortfall the state identified, Keenan said. Connecticut property owners, who incurred much less damage from Sandy, would pay a surcharge of just $1; their state only lacked $475 million, he said.

All estimates are preliminary and could rise after more research, Freudenberg said.

While each state would have its own fund, the commission would control all “underwriting and allocation decisions,” the RPA said. Each state would be guaranteed a minimum amount of financing, the report said.

Freudenberg said the RPA hopes the commission “would invest in projects that span states. . . . But each state could decide how much of their trust fund could go towards multi-state projects.”

Loans and grants could also be part of the program; Keenan noted that issuing bonds backed by the surcharges could halve them.

The new body also would develop standards based on the latest science and require localities to submit detailed reports about their requirements to help the states set priorities, the experts said.

A spokeswoman for the New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said it is reviewing the report. She noted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration already “is building resiliency into permitting and funding actions, and providing key information, like sea-level rise projections, to help local governments, business owners, and planners ensure public safety and prevent the loss of property and services.“

Similarly, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said: “We would be willing to evaluate whether such an approach is useful to New Jersey and the region.”

Connecticut’s spokesman for its Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said it has been working hard to help residents, businesses, institutions and infrastructure withstand climate change.

“We are certainly open to the concept of more regional cooperation to help address it,” he added.

A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the proposed commission “appears to be a worthwhile initiative.”

Noting Congress must approve the Corps’ projects, he added: “Should the Tri-State Coastal Commission come to fruition, offer specific proposals and request our involvement, we would take it into advisement.”

Keenan stressed that coordinating how the region responds to storms or rising seas — before crises arise — is cost-effective and will ensure dollars are spent wisely.

“We can . . . pay for this now and get ahead of this — investing a dollar now is going to save $4 to $7 later,” he said.

And, he said, this regional approach could help ensure ineffective projects are not selected in haste after a storm strikes and that the funds are spent for the “collective good.”

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