Fine Print: Public Access to Beaches and Waterways

Environmentalists contend DEP’s new rules favor business interests, will make more areas off-limits

What happened: The commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection signed off Friday on new rules governing public access to waterfront areas, a source of much controversy and litigation. The new rules, to be published in the New Jersey Register early next month, will take effect November 5.

What it means: It lays out a framework for providing public access to beaches and tidal waterways in 231 municipalities from the New York-New Jersey Harbor region, south along the entire coastline, and north again along Delaware Bay and tidal portions of the Delaware River.

What DEP says the rules will do: The agency says the new rules will create incentives for local governments to work with the DEP to adopt new plans designed to meet local and regional access needs. The rules also mandate access be provided for new developments either on-site or off-site, if a municipality establishes a public access fund.

Why critics are unhappy with the new rules: Most environmental groups argue the new regulations will roll back requirements to provide public access to waterways. They argue the new rules exempt most public highway projects and industrial waterfront development from the requirements and also weaken existing requirements to provide meaningful access in association with public funding for beach replenishment projects.

Why business interests are happy with the rules:The new regulations replace old rules, which were tossed out by the courts, saying the agency overstepped its authority. The prior rules would have required more than a hundred businesses to provide public access or make a monetary contribution to create access at other areas.

What some are saying about the new rules: “The public needs more opportunities to get to rivers, bays and beaches of New Jersey,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “The DEP should be an aggressive advocate for the public, and work to remove those barriers and increase public access. Instead, they are methodically dismantling the policies and rules that have effectively provided access to beaches, built fishing piers, walkways and parks as part of public funding of beach nourishment, highway construction and regulation of coastal development.’’

What DEP officials say: “New Jersey already has great access to its beaches and tidal waterways,’’ said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. “This rule, developed with extensive input from the public and stakeholders, will make public access even better by setting up a framework that enables the DEP to work one-on-one with municipalities to craft Municipal Public Access Plans that make sense locally, instead of imposing one-size-fits-all mandates.’’

What’s next: Expect a challenge to the rules from various environmental groups, some of which have said they are already exploring their legal options.