On the Waterfront: State Poised to Grant Public Greater Access to Beaches

Tom Johnson | March 26, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Bill goes to governor that would expand public access to beaches, waterfront areas while leaving contentious issues like parking and fees for future debate

beach access
The public may be guaranteed more access to the state’s beaches and waterfronts under a hard-fought bill given final legislative approval yesterday.

Both houses voted without debate to send to the governor S-1074, which codifies into law the public-trust doctrine, a common-law principle that holds natural resources such as tidal waters and waterfronts are preserved for public use.

Long championed by conservationists, the issue emerged in 2015 when a state appeals court struck down the Department of Environmental Protection’s authority to establish rules dealing with public access to beaches and waterfronts.

Leaving issues for the future

The question of who has access to beaches and waterfronts has long pitted conservationists against town officials and private-property owners, as well as business interests, such as condominium complexes and marinas. This bill sought to broaden public access while leaving more contentious debates over parking and fees for the future.

The legislation tries to accomplish that goal by obligating the DEP to protect and promote access to public-trust lands in its funding and permitting decisions involving coastal, wetlands, and flood-control regulations.

“It is important for New Jerseyans to have access to the beautiful and iconic Jersey Shore,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “For too long, there have been too many barriers in place along the shore, tidal waters, and waterfront areas.’’

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society and a co-chair of a special legislative task force that helped draft the bill, said the measure will expand opportunities for the public to access waterfront areas.

Exemptions for critical infrastructure

The legislation had wide backing, but faced opposition from business groups who pressed for and eventually won exemptions for critical infrastructure along the waterfront — nuclear power plants, chemical facilities, refineries, and petroleum-tank farms.

Some environmentalists fear last-minute changes to the bill weakened it. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, objected to an amendment that changed a provision that DEP promote public access to the extent “practicable’’ instead of “possible.’’ He argued courts would define practicable as reasonable or current practice.

“Ultimately, nothing will change and will not allow for better access than towns currently have,’’ Tittel said. “This means that towns like Deal or Avalon who want our money but don’t want us on the beach will keep playing their games to keep us out.’’

Dillingham disputed that assessment, saying the bill will ensure that DEP factors funding into its permitting decisions and other actions when public access is required under the public-trust doctrine.

The legislation also will require the state agency to consider changes in public access when there is a change in development in waterfront areas, a trend that is occurring more frequently as redevelopment occurs in urban areas.

That means the new access requirements apply to riverfront areas in the northern part of the state along the Hudson River, where rampant development has walled off sections of the waterfront, according to Dillingham.