Sea level rise expert spotlight: David Kutner

Planning Manager for New Jersey Future discusses sea level rise, its impact on New Jersey, and the complexities and importance of local-level and state-level action in preparation for sea level rise events.

David M. Kutner is the Planning Manager for New Jersey Future. He is one of SeaLevelRise.org’s experts in New Jersey, where he is valued for his extensive knowledge of coastal community rebuilding and disaster recovery, as well as his knowledge of future planning best practices.

Kutner is a licensed professional planner with over 25 years of land use and environmental planning experience and has has worked as a planning consultant and held positions in local, county, and state planning agencies in New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida. His work has included master planning, community design, neighborhood planning, downtown redevelopment planning, economic development, natural resource protection, and open space / recreation planning.

As the Recovery Planning Manager for New Jersey Future, Kutner oversees development and administration of the organization’s program to provide direct planning assistance and implementation support to local governments working to recover from Hurricane Sandy. He helps communities develop plans, for both immediate rebuilding and long-term recovery, that anticipate the impacts of and respond to sea-level rise and future storm events to break cycles of repetitive loss.


+ What initially sparked your interest in learning more about sea level rise?

I was living in South Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit our coast on October 29, 2012. Where I lived lights didn’t even flicker, but the storm’s incredible destructive power was felt acutely almost everywhere else around the state. The impacts in the aftermath of the storm stoked my interest to learn more about the forces that drove it.

+ Why do you believe sea level rise is an important topic for communities and policy makers to pay attention to now?

New Jersey has been developing densely and extensively along its 1,800 miles of tidal coastline and fragile barrier islands for more than three centuries. Over this period, the shore has become the state’s most prominent tourist destination and the life-blood of the economy.

However, the concentrated development that characterize New Jersey’s coast leaves many people and structures dangerously vulnerable to subsiding and eroding coastlines, increasingly frequent and severe storms, and growing flood risks associated with sea-level rise.

These risks were brought into sharp focus during Sandy and several major storms that pummeled our coast since.

Scientific analysis indicates unequivocally that flooding and storm damage will occur at an increasing pace into the foreseeable future, and many coastal communities are experiencing these impacts with regularity today. The IPCC Report released in October, the National Climate Assessment released two weeks ago, and the just released Global Carbon Budget paint an alarming picture of present and growing severe risks that we will face in as little as two or three decades if we don’t take responsive action immediately. Frankly, now may even be a little late.

+ Can you share an example of how sea level rise impacts NJ?

A few numbers should help to tell the story of the impacts we’re experiencing from sea-level rise:

  • Since 1978 New Jersey received a greater amount in payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program than all but 2 other states — Texas, which is 30 times our size, and Louisiana, which hosted Katrina, the most costly hurricane in US history.
  • As of 2015, New Jersey ranked 3rd in the nation for the number of severe repetitive loss properties and since 1978 we’ve spent more than $660 million repairing those houses over and over again.
  • Since 1978, one coastal town that New Jersey Future has worked with received NFIP payouts greater than 43 other states.

To compound the risks we’re facing from sea-level rise, our coastline is subsiding at about one quarter the rate that the sea is rising.

+ Whose responsibility is it to plan for sea level rise and why?

Local and state governments are the two players with primary responsibility to address sea-level rise. In New Jersey, as with other home rule states throughout the country, authority for land use planning and zoning is delegated to local government. Local elected officials are the principal arbiters of the location, form, and intensity of development. These local bodies hold considerable sway over the extent to which a municipality is prepared to respond to risks of future hazards.

On their own, however, municipal officials are often not equipped to perform risk assessments or conduct public discussions about why transformations of long-standing land use patterns may be necessary. Local officials are often reluctant to publicly consider risk for fear of push-back from their residents and concern about tax revenues loss.

For these reasons, state governments are best suited to assume a leadership role in assisting coastal municipalities to implement adaptation and mitigation initiatives. States can set uniform, forward-looking sea-level rise standards and guidelines for mitigation planning. And through policy and regulation, states can guide and drive local efforts to address coastal hazards at a regional scale.

+ How at risk is your house to flooding and sea level rise?

I moved to a second story apartment in center city Philadelphia a little over three years ago. As we contemplated the move, I checked flood plain maps and concluded that we should be safe from the effects of sea-level rise for at least a few decades. However, a voice inside my head keeps shouting that my sense of security may be unfounded, particularly given the most recent climate change reports, so I’m not sleeping at all well these days.


First Street Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) public charity that works to quantify and communicate the impacts of sea level rise and flooding
SeaLevelRise.org was created to enlighten and enable elected officials to implement widespread solutions to sea level rise. While there are many groups that benefit from the output of SeaLevelRise.org, we craft everything we do to be useful for elected officials and community leaders.