New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force Completes Final Report

Posted on January 6th, 2011 by Julia Ciardullo

By Julia Ciardullo

On December 31, 2010, the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force released its final report on the impacts of sea level rise on the state’s coastlines, which includes 14 specific recommendations aimed to address these impacts.  

The Task Force recommendations include a variety of executive-branch and legislative actions.  Most notably, the recommendations seek to discourage development in vulnerable coastal areas through specific changes to a number of state laws and regulations governing the environmental review process, protection of wetlands, prevention of coastal erosion, local planning and zoning, and handling of hazardous waste, among others.

For example, the Task Force proposes the following statutory and regulatory changes:

— revisions to the State Environmental Quality Review Act and its implementing regulations to strengthen the environmental review process for actions undertaken in specified coastal risk management zones; 

— updates to the state building code to address the impacts associated with sea level rise, coastal storms, and coastal flooding;

— amendments to the Real Property Law to require real estate brokers and lenders to disclose whether property is located within a coastal risk management zone;

— changes to the Coastal Erosion Hazard Areas Act to provide for penalties for violations of the Act and to allow the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to compel removal of unauthorized structures and/or restoration of unauthorized excavation within coastal erosion hazard areas;

— amendments to local planning and zoning laws to require consideration of sea level rise impacts when zoning waterfront areas;

— a requirement that DEC consider sea level rise when making permitting and remedial decisions for solid and hazardous waste sites; and

— the addition of the following language to the Tidal Wetlands Act: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state to preserve and protect tidal wetlands and to prevent their despoliation and destruction, giving due consideration to the occurrence of sea level rise that will result in wetlands loss and migration, and to the reasonable economic and social development of the state.”

The state is also encouraged to adopt sustainable adaptation planning.  For example, the Task Force recommends the use of non-structural measures (such as prohibiting development in unsafe, high-risk locations, or relocating, elevating or flood proofing existing coastal infrastructure) and natural protective features (such as wetlands, dunes, bluffs, barrier islands and aquatic vegetation) to reduce the impacts of coastal storms, erosion and sea level rise.  To this effect, the Task Force suggests the development and implementation of long-term regional-scale coastal resilience plans.

More generally, the Task Force urges the state and all relevant state agencies to:

— factor the current and anticipated impacts of sea level rise into all relevant aspects of their decision making processes;

— provide financial support, guidance and tools to community-based organizations to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop and implement remedial and adaptation plans;

— undertake a comprehensive assessment of, and prepare for, the public health risks associated with sea level rise and climate change;

— raise public awareness of the impacts of sea level rise and climate change; and

— develop an agency working group to recommend mechanisms to fund adaptation measures.

State agencies are also encouraged to coordinate funding priorities for future research initiatives and adaptation measures.

The majority of recommendations in the report are to be implemented within the next two to five years, although the report includes some longer-term actions as well.  To start, the state is encouraged to define coastal risk management zones and prepare planning maps reflecting projected sea level rise and changes in coastal flooding.

Some of the recommendations in the report are not unanimously endorsed by the members of the Task Force.  The City of New York, which has launched its own long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC, does not support the recommendations designed to discourage coastal development.  As detailed in comments submitted to the Task Force and available as an appendix to the report, New York City believes that these recommendations “are not supported by thorough scientific, environmental, or cost-benefit analysis [and] do not recognize the differences between undeveloped areas and densely-populated cities.”  New York City officials have also indicated that because these recommendations would restrict development in the city, they could hurt the region’s economy.[1]

However, both the state and the city can agree that sea level rise is an important issue and must be addressed.  According to the report, more than 62 percent of New York’s population lives in marine coastal counties.  Sea level in the Lower Hudson Valley and Long Island is projected to rise two to five inches by the 2020s, increasing 12 to 23 inches by the end of the century (up to 55 inches by the end of the century if accelerated polar ice melt occurs).  New York Harbor has already experienced an increase in sea level of more than 15 inches in the past 150 years, with harbor tide gauges showing a rise of between four and six inches since 1960.

The report, which is part of a larger climate action planning process already underway in New York State, is an important first step in dealing with the complex issues involved with sea level rise.  However, the report acknowledges that in many cases, further analysis may be necessary to evaluate the site-specific applicability and effect of sea level rise on state and local economies, economic development, greenhouse gas mitigation efforts, the environment and other factors.

The Task Force was established by the State Legislature in 2007.  DEC led the Task Force, which included representatives of state and local government agencies, non-governmental organizations and affected communities. 

The final report is available at

[1] Julie Shapiro, Rising Sea Levels Have City and State at Odds, (Jan. 3, 2011).

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