As Temperatures Soar, Lawmakers Turn Attention to Beach Access — Again

Tom Johnson | July 18, 2016 | Energy & Environment
It can still be expensive and difficult for residents eager to swim, surf, or tan to get close to the water along parts of the Jersey Shore

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It’s getting toward the dog days of summer, so lawmakers are turning their attention once again to guaranteeing access to beaches and the shoreline up and down the Jersey coast.

With a special legislative task force recommending stronger polices to ensure public access to beaches and waterfront areas, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee is trying to make that happen through new legislation.

The committee hopes to take up a still-being-drafted bill in early August in a rare joint session with the Assembly Environment Committee, a measure Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) would like to see taken up by the Legislature this fall.

There’s no guarantee any real consensus will emerge over an issue that has sparked controversy, litigation, and recurring complaints about towns restricting access to beaches by curtailing parking and easy entry and by charging high beach fees.

In an era of heightened concerns about potential terrorist attacks, waterfront access also has been restricted because a great deal of critical infrastructure — refineries, sewage-treatment plants, and utilities — is located along the shoreline.

The legislative task force, in a report to the panel, agreed that access at those points should be limited, but disagreed over whether those facilities ought to pay to create points of entry to other waterfront areas nearby. Business interests want those requirements eliminated.

To help bolster access, the committee looked at providing free or affordable parking within a certain distance of the waterfront, particularly for all projects using public money to improve beaches and other areas.

The state also should consider dedicating a portion of beach fees imposed by towns to help fund new access points to the beach, according to the panel. It also pushed increasing the number of access points along the coastline.

The issue of beach access landed in legislators’ laps late last year when a state appeals court struck down rules adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection governing access. The rules were challenged and eventually overturned by the court after environmental advocates brought suit.

In the ruling, however, the court also took away the DEP’s authority to regulate beach access. The bill, however, failed to deal with many of the core issues so often a source of controversy over the past decades, leading Smith to appoint the beach-access task force to help recommend new policies.

The DEP appealed the court’s ruling of last December, but earlier this month the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The court’s ruling also removed a temporary order from the lower court, which had allowed the old DEP rules to remain in place, pending the DEP petition.