Governor Signs Law that Strengthens Public Access to Beaches

Some proponents concerned about ‘vague language’ in new law that holds tidal waters and waterfronts are preserved for public use

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With Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature, the state has broadened the public’s access to beaches and waterfront areas, but even advocates say more needs to be done to ensure New Jersey’s shoreline is readily accessible to all.

The governor signed a bill (S-1074) on Friday that enshrines into state law the public trust doctrine, a principle that holds natural resources such as tidal waters and waterfronts are preserved for public use. The bill won approval this spring after a hard-fought battle in the Legislature.

The issue of who has access to beaches and waterfronts had long pitted conservationists against town officials and private property owners, as well as business interests, such as condominiums and marinas. Some towns sought to block access by limiting parking, imposing high beach fees, and blocking access points.

The law aims to solve the problem by obligating the Department of Environmental Protection to promote access in its funding and permitting decisions involving coastal and other regulatory programs.

“New Jersey’s shoreline and coastal communities are some of our state’s greatest treasures,’’ said Murphy, in announcing his signing of the bill. “By strengthening the public’s right to access our beaches, we are ensuring that all New Jersey residents and visitors can enjoy our beautiful shore this summer and for generations to come.’’

Vague language, more lawsuits?

Some proponents are less certain. “The bill has vague language that will allow many communities to sue and be able to block public access,’’ predicted Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Too many communities want our money, but they don’t want us on their beaches.’’

But Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, argued the law will provide new tools to deal with longstanding public access problems, such as the impact of local beach fees on access.

“The role of public access, and open spaces along tidal waters should be integrated into the Murphy administration’s efforts to adapt and respond to climate change,’’ said Dillingham, who helped craft a consensus among environmentalists and business interests to back the bill.

Some of the longstanding issues with public access can begin to be addressed by rewriting Christie era hold-over rules on public access to reflect new directions and policies from the Legislature and administration.

Besides promoting public access to public-trust lands in DEP’s funding and permitting decisions, the law requires the 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, particularly in the northern part of the state.

Another bill will address critical infrastructure

The law addresses business concerns about opening up access to critical infrastructure along waterfront areas, such as nuclear power plants, tank terminals and refineries that could be targeted by terrorists.

A more controversial issue concerns whether those facilities ought to be required to allow off-site access to waterfront areas when those sites are precluded because of security concerns. That question and other more contentious issues have been put off but are expected to be addressed in a second bill, according to Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the bill signed by the governor.

The beach access issue became a top priority in 2015 when a state appeals court struck down the DEP’s authority to establish rules dealing with public access to beaches and shoreline areas.

DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said Friday she considered it a priority to ensure open and equal access to the state’s coastlines. “I look forward to working with the land use and coastal planning experts at DEP to craft the regulations to implement this important legislation,’’ she said.