Bill Would Make Public Access Condition of Shore Protection Projects

Tom Johnson | April 14, 2014 | Energy & Environment
If public funding pays for project, measure would mandate public access to beaches, waterfronts -- including Sandy initiatives

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New Jersey has 127 miles of beaches along the Atlantic coast, an enticing attraction that helps drive a nearly $40 billion tourism industry.

But many parts of the coastline are off limits to the public — a circumstance some lawmakers and conservationists are hoping to resolve, if only partially.

The Legislature is moving a bill (S-183), sponsored by Sen. James Whelan (D-Atlantic), that would require any shore protection projects receiving public funding to include public access to the waterfront, an amendment urged by a conservation group in a vote by a committee considering the bill last month.

The issue is a longstanding bone of contention between the state and coastal advocates, who say New Jersey too often restricts access to the waterfront, sometimes because the beaches are privately owned and sometimes because of security concerns related to businesses along the shore.

For years, conservationists have been lobbying for greater access to waterfront areas, allowing fishermen and others to take advantage of the recreational opportunities along the coast.

With Hurricane Sandy causing massive damage not only to houses, but also beaches and dunes along the coast, the state is expected to ramp up spending for shore protection projects.

The bill is similar to a measure approved by the Legislature in the last legislative session, which was pocket-vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. That bill (S-2600) only required the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to give priority to projects that included new public access to the waterfront, as well as projects that enhance existing public access.

That provision drew criticism from Stacey McCormack, director of governmental affairs at the American Littoral Society.

McCormack said New Jersey and the federal government are poised spend hundreds of millions of dollars on shore protection projects. “There are significant stretches of the coast where there is no public access,’’ she said.

She argued that it is beyond common sense to spend millions of dollars on projects in which the public has no access to beaches or waterfronts. “Now is the time to address longstanding problems with public access,’’ McCormack said.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which advanced the bill to the appropriations panel, initially had reservations about including a mandate to require public access.

“Our problem, to be candid, is DEP,’’ Smith said, worrying that if a mandate was included many worthwhile projects may never receive funding. “Is it better to get something done or is it better to get it right?’’ he asked. “I don’t know the answer on this.’’

Other senators, however, backed the mandate calling for public access to waterfront areas, a position that led the committee to amend the bill to include the requirement.

Beyond the public access requirement, the bill also would require the DEP to establish a priority system for ranking shore protection projects. In the past, Smith noted the agency had such a system, but allowed it to expire.

The legislation also would require all shore protection projects that include a structural component, such as seawalls and other permanent facilities, to also include non-structural components, like sand dunes. Towns with dunes fared much better during Hurricane Sandy than those without these natural barriers.