A supposedly consensus bill to guarantee the public’s access to beach and waterfronts in New Jersey is floundering once again as conservation groups balk at new amendments.
The legislation (S-1074), easily approved last June by the Senate in a 36-4 vote, aims to 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.
But advocates oppose proposed changes to that bill, arguing they narrow the scope of what areas may be open to public access and limit the state Department of Environmental Protection’s authority to mandate access as part of its permitting process.
The proposed amendments were agreed by the DEP and Sen. Bob Smith, the sponsor of the bill, according to Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, the chair of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee who, like Smith, is a Middlesex County Democrat. The bill is now pending in the committee.
One specific change irked public-access advocates, replacing “shall’’ with ‘’may’’ in a section dealing with the DEP’s ability to mandate access to waterfront and beach areas.
“Every time you put ‘may’ in a bill it generally means it may never happen,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It puts too much discretion with the people who historically have been part of the problem.’’
Long-standing concerns about loss of public access
Conservationists had pushed for the bill, in part, because they contended the public is losing access to these areas, faulting the DEP for failing to proactively promote the public’s interest in gaining entry to beach and waterfront areas.
Under the Senate version of the bill, the rights of access would be ensured by the DEP through a range of permitting programs overseen by the agency in dealing with coastal areas and wetlands, with one notable exception.
The legislation would exempt certain critical infrastructure, such as power plants, oil refineries and tank farms and other facilities. The exemption was pushed by business interests who argued they should be excluded because of security concerns.
Generally, the bill still won support from the business community although some lobbyists pushed for changes, saying a “one size fits all’’ approach is unworkable given the range of facilities and private ownership along New Jersey’s waterfront and beaches.
Tim Dillingham, a co-chair of a legislative task force of business and environmentalists that came up with the general framework of the Senate bill, urged the Assembly committee to retain the original version.
“We think the bill that originally came out of the Senate reflected the consensus of a lot of parties,’’ Dillingham said.
‘Long history’ on road to consensus
Greg Remaud, NY/NJ Baykeeper, agreed, saying reaching a consensus did not come easily. “There’s a long history and long battles that has got us here,’’ he said.
Long a top priority of conservationists, the issue of improving access to shorelines has often pitted them against municipalities, businesses large and small, and private landowners. It came to a head when a state appeal court three years ago struck down the authority of the state DEP to guarantee access to beach and waterfronts.
The legislation is expected to come up at the committee’s next meeting, Pinkin said.