A supposedly consensus bill guaranteeing public access to beaches and waterfronts cleared its first legislative hurdle with only nominal opposition.
For the first time, the legislation (S-2490) would enshrine in state law the public trust doctrine, a common law principle dating back centuries that states that natural resources such as the shoreline and tidal waters are preserved for public use.
The unanimous passage by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee marks a small victory for conservationists who have long sought to improve access to the state’s beaches and waterfronts, an area of controversy often putting them at odds with municipalities and private owners.
But the battle is far from over. Many substantive issues regarding beach access, such as fees and parking, to name only two, have yet to be settled. They are expected to be subject to much debate in complementary legislation yet to be introduced.
Even a major component of the beach access bill involving exemptions for certain critical infrastructure, such as power plants, oil refineries, tank farms, and other facilities, remains to be worked out. Most agree those facilities ought be excluded from the bill’s provisions for security reasons.
Under an amendment that won support from many of the groups that packed the hearing in the State House Annex, it would be left to the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to spell out what facilities would not be covered by the access requirements.
The proposal was adopted after Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, rejected a proposal by business lobbyists that he argued was too broad and would incorporate too many exemptions, such as passenger terminals along the waterfront.
“Right now, I don’t want to give away the store,’’ Smith said. In a rulemaking procedure, “the difference is everybody will get a chance to get their licks in,’’ he said.
For the most part, with the notable exception of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, the compromise won support from most of the stakeholders who have participated in a lengthy process to make recommendations governing beach access.
“I think it’s a good solution. It’s a compromise,’’ said Debby Mans, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and one of the chairs of a legislative task force set up by Smith to focus on the issue. The rulemaking process will ensure transparency in what facilities are exempted from the access requirements, Mans said.
The issue emerged unexpectedly more than a year ago in December 2015 when a state appeals court struck down the authority of the state Department of Environmental Protection to establish rules governing access to waterfronts and beaches.
That led to the quick passage of legislation to re-establish that authority without answering many unresolved issues involving public access to those areas. In the meantime, the state DEP proposed minor adjustments to its old rules dealing with access, a step that met with criticism from many conservation groups.
Environmentalists argue that the DEP proposal would fall short of ensuring the access guaranteed by the bill now making its way through the Legislature.