DEP open to reviewing state’s beach access rules

Beachgoers seldom share the secret of Via Ripa — Sea Bright’s northernmost public access beach. It’s hidden behind a sea wall on Ocean Avenue with its signage and staircase virtually blocked by bushes.

It’s hard to fine, but to be fair, Via Ripa’s on the town’s beach access website. But if you do find it, signs prohibiting parking bristle forbiddingly along the street, and there’s no public parking on Ocean Avenue.

“You have to go in these people’s parking spots that live here, or are summering over here, and it’s not fair to them,” said Marilyn Aponte from Rahway.

“There’s only very limited parking, and it’s mainly I guess the people that live here. If you get here early enough, you get a spot,” said Briann Lentine from Hazlet. “Otherwise you have to keep going down.”

Down past the private, members-only clubs, about 1.7 miles, to find public parking and a bathroom. It’s what makes Via Ripa public, but not particularly convenient. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe wants to discuss different remedies with stakeholders.

“What does fair and equitable access mean with respect to parking and access to restroom facilities, which are kind of necessary if you want people to be able to come to the beach. It will not be an easy time, I think. Lots of people have very strong opinions. We’re all very, very attached to our beaches. And our beaches the way they were. We don’t like to change. This will be, I think, a real challenge for the DEP but we’re very committed to moving out on it,” McCabe said.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed a law empowering the DEP to use its powers to guarantee meaningful beach access as a public trust doctrine, possibly pitting the agency against some towns, businesses and private owners that seek to limit access. The public can use the beaches — private clubs notwithstanding — but the Sierra Club worries the law is weak.

“It didn’t require towns to require real access, or parking or amenities. So we hope the DEP now through the rule-making process can fix some of those defects, but we’re also concerned the towns may sue to block the rules,” said the New Jersey Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel.

In Deal, the town wants to sell where Neptune Avenue deadends at the beach. It offers access on Hathaway, instead. The Littoral Society filed a lawsuit to stop it, noting the public paid millions of tax dollars to replenish the beaches. There’s a court hearing this month.

“The public in New Jersey has a right to go on the beach wherever they want to go and local government should not be trying to direct them to certain spots on the beach,” said the Littoral Society’s Tim Dillingham. “So we ought to be sort of positively and affirmatively trying to open our coastline up for the public to use, not close it off and channel people through just a few access points.”

But Deal argues Neptune Avenue’s always offered just “visual access,” which it will maintain after selling the property. Both Deal and Sea Bright also maintain public beach pavilions. But the often-litigated, intensely-debated issue of access along all 127 miles of Jersey beaches continues. Many surfers and beachcombers crave solitude.

“What I like about this? The fact that they don’t have the public parking and everything. The beach is halfway deserted. There’s not a lot of people on it,” said Rahway resident Ted Odell about Via Ripa.

The DEP’s got no timeline for reexamining the rules for public access beaches, but given the contentious history of the issue it’s bound to be a robust discussion.