Flooding is a serious problem in Highlands.
The center of town, which is both residential and business, is at a lower elevation than the shore line. During a storm, water comes from the Sandy Hook Bay/Shrewsbury River and storm water comes rushing down to the below sea level downtown from “the hill,” the highest elevation on the east coast of the United States which includes parts of Highlands and the Monmouth Hills section of Middletown. During a big storm at high tide and a full moon, downtown Highlands looks like Venice without the charm and romance.
Councilman Chris Francy convinced the rest of the governing body to have T&M Associates, the borough’s engineers, design a flood mitigation system that includes new pumps and pipes to get the water out of town and back into the bay/river. The project is said to be “shovel ready” and will cost roughly $4 million dollars. The governing body is applying to FEMA to cover $2.2 million of the cost. Congressman Frank Pallone is on board to advocate for the project with FEMA. At a town hall meeting on Monday night, Francy, Pallone and Mayor Frank Nolan said that Highlands is currently number three on FEMA’s list of such projects in New Jersey but that only two will be approved. Pallone is working to get Highlands bumped up on the list and secure the funding. That might be good for Highlands and bad for a community along the Passaic River.
The governing body is set to vote on a resolution tonight that will put the project on the ballot in November as a non-binding referendum. The referendum would ask the voters consent to fund the entire project without FEMA money.
There’s two problems with this scenario.
1) Putting the issue to the voters as a non-binding referendum is a cop out and an act of political cowardice. The governing body does not legally need the voters consent to approve the proposed project. If the proposed project is the best and most cost effective solution, the governing body should approve it and get the work started. The flooding situation has been an issue in every political campaign in memory. Promises, promises and nothing has happened. Now finally something is on the verge of happening and the people who ran on the promise to address the issue now want to ask the voters if they are sure?
What if the referendum fails? Will the political cowards who failed to pull the trigger on the project suddenly get balls and defy the voters? Or, will Highlands be doomed to another generation underwater.
2) A much bigger problem is that neither the governing body nor the residents know if the proposed $4 million project is the best solution to Highlands’ flooding.
The Army Corp of Engineers has another idea that includes beach berms and bulkheads that would, if it worked, keep the river/bay water from getting into town in the first place. A few years back, during Anna Little’s term as mayor, the Corp wanted to come into town to evaluate the situation. The Corp was told, “thanks but no thanks” because property owners on the shore line, lead by Little and Francy, wouldn’t let the engineers on their property to complete the study.
That’s right. Two elected officials wouldn’t let the Army Corp of Engineers onto their properties to study the feasibility of solving the flooding with beach berms and bulkheads. “Not in my backyard,” literally and taken to the extreme.
Little is no longer a member of the governing body. But Francy, who is the prime advocate of the proposed project, has a blatant conflict of interest. Maybe that is why he wants a referendum.
The Highlands Mayor and Council should slow down and make sure they get this right. Take another six months or a year and evaluate all options to finally, after generations, mitigate the flooding in Highlands. Then, they should make the decision themselves without the political cover of a non-binding referendum.
Don’t let the personal agendas of current and former elected officials steer the course to solving a problem as old the borough.