NJ Lawmakers Scramble to Ensure Public Access to Beaches, Waterfronts

Without emergency measures being taken, state could lose federal funding for shore protection projects

beach access
Acting on an emergency basis, legislators yesterday moved to restore the authority of the state Department of Environmental Protection to require public access to beaches and waterfront areas.

Without the bill (S-3321), federal funding for shore protection projects along the coast would be jeopardized, as well the ability of the state to oversee important environmental programs, according to proponents of the measure.

The bill is a rare bipartisan response of the legislative and executive branches to a state appeals court decision handed down just three days before Christmas that invalidated the DEP’s authority to require beach access through its coastal protection and waterfront development permits.

Approved by both the Senate Environment and Energy and the Assembly Appropriations committees, the legislation is expected to win final passage in votes by the Senate and Assembly on Monday — the last day of current legislative term.

“It’s appropriate to act expeditiously,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate committee and a sponsor of the bill, who called the special meeting of the panel after receiving a call Wednesday requesting a quick response from DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. “Do we want chaos or do we want order?’’

Martin said the bill will simply restore the practice of having the agency provide beach access as it was before the court decision, which he argued “seriously and immediately jeopardized the ability of every New Jerseyan to access waterfront areas.’’

The court decision affects 1,300 access points in 120 towns and cities along the state’s coastline, according to Martin. Even before the court’s ruling, beach access has been a contentious issue, including DEP taking legal action against property owners to build dunes along beaches to prevent damage from storms like Hurricane Sandy.

If enacted, the bill would restore rules put in place by the DEP in 2012 governing beach access — regulations many conservation groups opposed, including one that brought the challenge to the appeals court. Without the Legislature acting, Martin said the state would appeal the court’s decision.

But Smith refused to entertain any amendments, from environmentalists who criticize the regulations for cutting back access to waterfront areas and from business interests who wanted changes to reflect areas important to homeland security.

Instead, Smith said he would take up the issue in the upcoming legislative term, after convening a special panel to come up with recommendations for changes to lawmakers.

“The DEP is the right agency to regulate beach access and many of the programs important to New Jersey residents,’’ Smith said.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the bill only a first step in correcting defects from the court case, but ‘’we still have a lot of work ahead of us.’’