Photo: Amy Corti

Coastal flooding is a regional risk that is largely managed locally

While flooding knows no municipal boundary, the region’s coastline is governed by multiple stakeholders with different rules, policies, and guidelines—and there are few incentives to collaborate or coordinate efforts. Federal minimum standards are too weak, while national flood insurance is, at best, flawed and, at worst, exacerbates the problem. The lack of guidance in terms of standards, unified science, and data across agencies and states makes it difficult to consolidate or share information or advocate for a unified long-term vision. Most of the region’s municipalities have limited capacity to address coastal flooding on their own because many are governed by part-time mayors or local councils. The coastal management programs of the three states vary widely in approach, and inconsistent policies can prevent important adaptation from being implemented across state lines. At the same time, adaptation is not a singular focus of any program, nor are issues of regional significance, such as infrastructure.

The result is poor inter- and intragovernmental coordination, with conflicting interests, and communities taking actions that may have adverse impacts on surrounding communities. This fragmented governance makes it nearly impossible to address the effects of climate change in a comprehensive and effective way. As flooding affects more of the region’s infrastructure, regional decision-making will become even more important to maintain services and the quality of life in individual municipalities. Without regional collaboration and stable funding, disjointed approaches and misaligned timelines will be the norm, with each community or agency competing for the same limited funding.

Create a Regional Coastal Commission to prioritize and coordinate climate adaptation

The RCC should be modeled after successful commissions, in the region and elsewhere, that coordinate municipal and private actions to preserve and manage environmental assets. These include the Highlands and Meadowlands Commissions in New Jersey, and the Pine Barrens Commission on Long Island. Other regions, including the San Francisco Bay Area and the Chesapeake Bay region, have successful region-scale coastal management authorities. The RCC would coordinate adaptation strategies undertaken by coastal communities, develop and manage adaptation standards, and prioritize projects for funding based on the potential for region-wide resilience. Funding could come from state adaptation trust funds or from existing federal and state sources.

The commission would implement its mission through the following actions:

  • Produce a regional coastal adaptation plan that aligns adaptation policies across boundaries and establishes a vision for short- and long-term adaptation.
  • Develop and manage evidence-based standards to guide projects and development/redevelopment in the region’s flood-prone places.
  • Coordinate and encourage collaborative projects across municipal and state boundaries.
  • Evaluate and award funding for projects that align with the standards established by the commission.

The commission should include each of the coastal counties plus any municipality with land at risk from flooding at six feet of sea-level rise and, as a priority, municipalities that have land within the coastal zone. This boundary could be periodically updated by the commission to account for changes in sea-level rise projections and redrawn flood maps.

Adopt best practices of other coastal commissions

The structure and governance of the Regional Coastal Commission should be guided by the following best practices of other coastal commissions and regional collaboratives:

  • Be inclusive and cross-jurisdictional. Members of the commission should be designated across jurisdictions and include all three states, each of the coastal counties, and a representative number from many—but not all—municipalities. The structure should allow for the free flow of information among all levels of government, even if they are not represented on the commission.
  • Represent different coastal conditions. All types of coastal locations should be represented, including the highly developed urban shores of New York City, Jersey City, and Bridgeport, suburban communities along the back bays and barrier beaches of Long Island and New Jersey, and the undeveloped land off Long Island’s east end. The region’s estuary programs and reserves could serve as useful frameworks for ensuring representation from each of these different coastal locations.
  • Engage and build trust with communities. The commission should ensure community outreach is an important part of its activities and mission,all voices are heard, and trust is established between the commission and communities. A campaign focusing on the health impacts of climate change can help sharpen priorities and translate long-term challenges into relatable issues.
  • Include elected officials. Public officials should have a role in the commission to give it legitimacy and visibility, but the governance structure must remain independent from political cycles and direct political interference.
  • Engage across disciplines. A key component of the commission’s work would be incorporating decisions and best practices into other government agencies. RCC staff and board members should come from a variety of disciplines (environmental, health, development, transportation, etc.) to embed all aspects of adaptation planning into decisions.
  • Be informed by science, and flexible to changes. The commission should make decisions and provide guidance based on the latest science and be flexible enough to change approaches as conditions warrant. The commission would also play an important role in communicating scientific information to government and community stakeholders.
  • Set clear criteria for adaptation funding. The Coastal Commission would oversee and make decisions about how Adaptation Trust Fund dollars would be spent, and ensure funding allocations and project selection are guided by a clear set of standards and evaluation metrics.
  • Set clear criteria for adaptation funding. The Coastal Commission would oversee and make decisions about how Adaptation Trust Fund dollars would be spent, and ensure funding allocations and project selection are guided by a clear set of standards and evaluation metrics.
Twenty of the region’s counties include coastal communities that are at risk of sea-level rise and periodic flooding. A Regional Coastal Commission would enable these counties to coordinate plans and resources between those at-risk communities and their upland neighbors, as well as across state boundaries.

Outcomes

With a Coastal Commission in place, the region would have a unified vision for adaptation that is informed by science, updated periodically, and tailored to the unique risks faced by different communities. Adaptation projects would proceed from planning to implementation in the places that need it most, and with sufficient funding to provide the greatest level of protection to the most people. Communities would have fewer people and less infrastructure at risk from storm flooding as well as the long-term and permanent flooding of sea-level rise. In short, our region would be prepared and taking proactive steps to adapt to the region’s future coastline with reduced risk, less need for recovery following floods, and a greater knowledge of where to continue building out our region with confidence into the future.

Paying for It

The Regional Coastal Commission could be established without new revenue sources, but its effectiveness would be tremendously enhanced through the proposed state adaptation funds, which could leverage funding—or pay for altogether—sorely needed adaptation projects throughout the region. The trust funds would be organized as public benefit corporations and initially capitalized from surcharges on property and casualty premiums. The funds would be managed by each state, but oversight and authority to underwrite and allocate the funds as grants and loans would rest with the commission. Each state trust fund would finance a minimum amount of in-state projects, while residual allocations would be prioritized for projects and programs whose benefits would extend beyond jurisdictional boundaries. The grants and loans could support a range of projects, from short-term community resilience planning to long-term infrastructure finance, and could be used to leverage or match other funding sources. Through the utilization of bond leverage, the funds could operate independently and without subsidy from the insurance surcharges within a 10-year sunset period. 

1. Keenan, J.M., “Regional Resilience Trust Funds: An Exploratory Analysis for Leveraging Insurance Surcharges. Environment Systems and Decisions,” 2017