New Jersey has 127 miles of coastline along the Atlantic and 83 miles along its bays, a natural treasure that brings in more than $35 billion in tourism revenue a year.
Looking to expand access to those beaches and waterways, the state Department of Environmental Protection this week adopted new rules that it says enhances entry to those areas, particularly for fishermen.
But the rules, which prompted a huge outcry from conservationists when they were proposed last year, fail to achieve that goal -- with critics saying they amount to a significant rollback of regulations designed to ensure urban communities have access to the state’s waterfronts.
"The rules weaken the requirement for coastal developments to provide access to the public," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "Only larger projects in fewer places will now have to provide access."
That view was disputed by DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, who agreed access to the ocean, bays and rivers is a fundamental right of state residents.
"We have heard the suggestions and concerns expressed by many of our residents during a very robust public comment period over the past year and have responded by making changes to the proposed rules, especially recognizing the needs of the fishing community in New Jersey," Martin said in a press release issued by his agency.
The new rules provide enhanced public access for recreational fishermen by ensuring that municipal plans include defined and guaranteed points of access for day and night fishing, according to the department. Dillingham and others disputed that assessment. The new rules put the authority for deciding how much access to waterfront areas in the hands of the municipalities, which traditionally have been hostile to allowing the public easy entry to those areas, according to Dillingham.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed.
"The rules take the side of marina owners, the people with big beach houses, and casinos," Tittel said. "The rest of the 99 percent of the people who go to the Shore get left out."
Among changes to the proposal made by DEP is a requirement that marinas need not expand access when improving existing facilities, but development of adjacent areas would require marina owners to provide public access.
But critics say the new rules will limit public access to waterfront areas by eliminating a requirement that a whole class of industrial facilities along waterways be required to provide access, or make a monetary contribution to create access at other waterfront areas.
More than 100 companies may have been affected by the old rule, which was tossed out by the courts. In the past, some companies paid up. International-Matrix Tank terminal in Bayonne helped build a public access park near its terminal, affording the public a way to reach the Kill Van Kull.
Under the rules, commercial and industrial buildings, sewer plants and other large facilities are exempt, according to Tittel. "When any of these facilities block public access, there should be a way to require access, or help pay access to another place."
Martin said the DEP will work closely with towns and cities to craft plans that make local sense and protect the rights and needs of residents and businesses, instead of imposing one-size-fits-all, state-dictated rules. The commissioner said all public access plans developed by municipalities require the approval of the agency, which has the final authority over them.
Foes of the proposal, however, said the rules lack standards for approval of local municipal access plans. "Not only are the rules too vague, it eliminates one of the most important tools to create public access to beaches—lawsuits," Tittel said. If a town has an approved public access plan, even if it denies access to the public, it can hide behind the approval of its DEP access plan, he argued.
Local governments will be given Green Acre program funds and other state resources to implement their plans, according to the department.