Beach Access Still a Matter of Tough Questions Without Easy Answers

Tom Johnson | April 25, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Public access to state’s beaches and waterfronts must be guaranteed, without compromising security of sewage-treatment plants and other facilities

beach access
The Legislature needs to establish stronger policies to ensure public access to New Jersey’s beaches and waterfront areas, according to a task force studying the issue.

The task force, in its first public comments after three months of deliberation, also seems to agree that the state should be a more affirmative advocate of public access, a recurring controversy pitting Shore communities against conservationists and fishermen for years.

The issue emerged again late last year when an appeals court limited the state Department of Environmental Protection’s authority to guarantee access, leading to passage of a bill in the lame-duck session to restore the agency’s ability to regulate use of shoreline areas.

The task force, set up by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, is supposed to come up with recommendations to lawmakers dealing with access. While reaching some consensus in some areas, the task force remains split on other issues.

“The access battles are not over,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, and one of four co-chairs of the task force. “There are still big stretches walled off and restricted.’’

[related]The issue is more complicated than in the past because much of the state’s critical infrastructure — chemical plants, oil refineries, water supply, sewage-treatment plants, and utilities — need to restrict access in an era of terror attacks.

There is consensus that no access should be allowed in such areas, but disagreement over whether those facilities ought to pay to create a point of entry to other waterfront areas nearby.

“The urban waterfront is transforming and state policy needs to reflect that,’’ said Debbie Mann, NY/NJ Baykeeper, another co-chair of the task force.

Another divisive topic involves beach fees, which some advocates believe work to restrict access to waterfront areas. There is some talk of using some of the beach fees to help fund additional beach access.

Smith was not surprised the task force could not reach a consensus on all issues regarding beach access, but urged the panel to come up with reports detailing where they agreed and where there was no consensus.

Smith hopes to come up with a bill implementing the consensual items, but does not expect any action to come before legislators return from their summer recess.

Given the differences, lawmakers are being urged to make some difficult decisions. “You have to be the referee,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s really up to you to uphold the public trust doctrine.’’