Fine Print: What’s the Price Tag for Ensuring Beach and Shoreline Access?

Tom Johnson | September 6, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Critics argue that a new bill would force towns to build restrooms and parking lots, even though state already offers extensive public access

beach access
What it is: For decades, there have been ongoing battles over how much access the public is guaranteed to New Jersey’s bountiful beaches and shoreline. The debate dates back to the longstanding public-trust doctrine in English common law, giving the public the right to enjoy access to and benefit from the beaches and shoreline tidal waters. Few argue with the principle, but the question of where, when, and how to maintain that right remains a topic yet to be resolved.

What is happening in New Jersey: Gridlock, apparently. After state courts last year overturned rules dealing with public access to beaches, the issue wound up in the Legislature, which adopted a quick fix that left major questions unanswered. Lawmakers have come up with a new bill (S-2490) guaranteeing public access, but the state Department of Environmental Protection opposes the measure, saying it is too expensive and onerous to some property owners.

Why the bill is important: To advocates, the bill enshrines the public trust doctrine in law in New Jersey, setting a standard requiring the state to ensure public access is not restricted — except in cases where it’s excluded for security reasons, such as oil refineries, utility infrastructure, and public water facilities. Even in those instances, however, offsite access may be required in other areas associated with the facilities, a provision opposed by business interests because of fiscal concerns.

Why some say the bill goes too far: To critics, the bill too readily triggers the provision requiring offsite access, forcing towns to spend money to build restrooms and parking when there is no need for it and property owners to pay to ensure public access. The DEP argued there already are thousands of locations where the public has access to waterways.

What happens next: The Democratic-controlled Legislature and Christie administration have frequently sparred over environmental regulations, and this case appears to continue that trend. The result is likely to lead to another impasse that may not be ended until a new administration takes its place in Trenton.