So Chris Christie's business-loving policies will put people's homes directly back in harm's way. After all, he's got an election to win! And developers are known to be very generous campaign contributors, so it's a win/win for everyone -- except the people who will be traumatized the next time around:
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.
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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."