In New Jersey, Waterfront Access Continues to Breed Controversy

Proposed revisions to DEP regulations have many in the business and environmental community sharply divided

It has helped build parks and provide waterfront access in some of the state’s most densely populated and industrialized areas, but seldom has an issue generated so much controversy.

That is the case with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s efforts to recast its regulations dealing with public access to waterfront areas, which have yet to be formally proposed, but is already causing angst among environmental groups.

The agency is being castigated by the groups for pulling back from its old rules governing access to waterfront areas, a regulation so controversial it spurred a rare measure sponsored by lawmakers to rescind the rule for exceeding legislative intent.

While a hearing was held on the measure last year, the legislature held off acting on it when Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials told them they were rewriting the rule to address concerns raised by businesses. In any event, the rule was tossed out by the courts, according to Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP.

The agency expects to propose a new rule within the next two weeks, Ragonese said.

“The goal is to provide good and enhanced access. It’s going to employ common sense,” he said. “You won’t be able to get into the Hess refinery, but there will be plenty of opportunity for the public to access waterfront areas.”

Paying for Public Access

More than 100 companies may have been affected by the old rule, which required facilities that did not provide public access to make a monetary contribution to create access at other waterfront areas, according to David Brogan, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

“When I think back to when this rule was adopted, it was, in my mind, one of the most ill-conceived, anti-business initiatives New Jersey has put forth,” Brogan said. The rule was being used by the agency to hold up approval of certain waterfront and other permits companies needed to expand operations, unless they anted up, according to Brogan.

Still, in some cases, some companies paid up. International-Matrix Tank Terminal in Bayonne helped build a public access park in the city near its terminal, affording the public an entry point to historic wrecks in the Kill Van Kull at the old Port Johnson coal dock, according to Bill Sheehan, executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper Inc.

With the old rule no longer in place, companies that had been negotiating with the city of Newark walked away from the table, Sheehan said. “If they don’t have to, they won’t do it voluntarily,” he said.

Other waterfront advocates said the draft proposal they had seen would undermine public access policies governing the state’s shared waterfronts, calling it a significant roll back of regulations designed to ensure that urban communities have access to the state’s waterfronts. Among communities affected would be waterfront municipalities in Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Union and Middlesex counties.

“Providing open space and recreational opportunities benefits the people of our communities,” Sheehan added. “If we limit New Jersey’s ability to re-invent its waterfronts, we will seriously impede redevelopment of our urban communities into centers of tourism, recreation, the arts and economic vitality.”

Limited Success

If the state pulls back from its old rules, advocates say it will limit New Jersey’s ability to copy the success of other cities that have revitalized their communities by focusing on waterfront access, such as Baltimore, San Antonio and Portland, Oregon.

But Brogan said his association strongly supports the draft. “It’s a much more comprehensive approach than before,” he said. “It brings common sense back to the process.”

The department also is working on developing a new website that will detail areas in New Jersey where there is public access to the waterfront, Ragonese said.

“Fishermen, surfers and beach-goers have fought long and hard for effective rules to protect their rights to access the beach and tidal waters. These developing policies and rules under consideration roll back many of those hard-fought gains” said Tim Dillingham, Executive Director of the American Littoral Society. “There is a long history of many beach towns working against broad public access to the shore, and these proposals would give the fox authority over the henhouse. New Jersey needs strong state protection of public access rights because the beaches and tidal waters belong to the entire state, not just those lucky enough to live on the shore.”