The Legislature is once again trying to guarantee the public’s access to beaches and waterfronts in New Jersey.
Taking up a bill (S-1074) that died in the previous session, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee advanced a measure that would enshrine in state law the public trust doctrine, a common-law principle that stipulates natural resources such as tidal waters and the shoreline are preserved for public use.
The concept has longs been advocated by conservationists, but it has yet to be codified into state law. The principle has been endorsed a special task force comprising conservation groups and business interests appointed by Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the committee, to look into the issue.
“For the first time, it establishes the public trust doctrine in statue. It’s there to protect the public’s right to access to beaches,” Smith said.
The problem of access to waterfront areas emerged in late 2015, when a state appeals court struck down the authority of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to establish rules governing entry to waterfront and beaches.
The rights of access would be ensured by the DEP under the bill through a variety of permitting programs overseen by the agency in dealing with coastal areas and wetlands, with one notable exception.
The bill would exempt for certain critical infrastructure, such as power plants, oil refineries, tank farms, and other facilities. It would be up to the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to come up with the rules governing which facilities are given the security designation.
“It’s been long process,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society and one of four co-chairs of a legislative task force that worked on the issue. “This bill does a great service to the public interest.”
With a change in administration, Dillingham also expressed hope the DEP will re-examine the rules it put in place during Gov. Chris Christie’s term, which he called problematic.
But Dillingham said the state still must address other issues dealing with waterfront and beach access. “There are a whole set of issues out there,” he said, noting there are billions of dollars being spent on beach restoration projects where there is no public access to beaches.
“The hard bill is next,” Smith said, but probably will not be taken up until sometime in the fall.
The legislation now heads to the Senate Budget Committee, where it languished in the prior session.