that By Kenny Walter
LONG BRANCH-The New Jersey legislature has placed the role of regulating beach access back in the hands of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
On Jan. 19, Gov. Chris Christie signed a law that would allow the DEP to award permits and oversee beach access for development along the oceanfront and urban waterways, much to the delight of environmental groups who have opposed previous incarnations of beach access rules.
“The legislator passed legislation that would give the state through the DEP the authority to regulate public access,” Tim Dillingham, executive director of the America Littoral
Society, said. “We believe that was a necessary and important step for the legislature to take.”
The new legislation comes just a month after the courts struck down the previous beach access rules, passed in 2012, that allowed individual municipalities to craft public access plans with approval from the DEP. The plans would address issues that include beach access points, signage and parking.
The NY/NJ Baykeeper and the Hackensack Riverkeeper filed a notice of appeal in the Appellate Division of state Superior Court in 2012, arguing that the DEP does not have the legal authority to a create public access rules for the state’s bays, beaches and waterways. The two groups argue that is the jurisdiction of the state Legislature.
In December a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that the DEP does not have the legal authority to require public access to the state’s coastal, bay, and tidally driven riverfront areas when issuing coastal related permits.
However, after striking down the previous law, John Weber, Surfrider Foundation Mid- Atlantic regional manager, said there was technically no law on the books to regulate public access for beaches and waterways before the legislature stepped in.
“The fear was that now there are no rules, so now it is like the wild west,” Weber said. “People on both sides of this thing, the DEP and the environmental community, both agreed very quickly that the legislature should pass a law to restore DEP’s authority.
“A very simple, short law that basically just gives DEP the authority for public access for waterways.”
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin argued during a hearing on the bill, that without the legislation, there would be no oversight to force municipalities to provide access.
“The court’s decision seriously and immediately jeopardized the ability of every New Jerseyan to access waterfront areas that are, by right, available to them,” Martin said. “This ruling directly affects the nearly 1,300 access points along our 127 miles of beaches.
“It also directly affects the 122 towns and urban areas that have tidally flowed rivers.To put it bluntly, if the State cannot require public access, any guarantee of public access is eliminated.”
Martin also said that without the new law being enacted, beach replenishment projects being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be threatened.
“The Army Corps has already advised the State that the ruling creates uncertainty about the State’s ability to guarantee public access,” he said. “This means that the Army Corps is likely to suspend further work until this matter is resolved.”
Weber agreed that federal money should be tied to public access.
He also said there should be additional laws passed to specify what exactly is required of both the state and municipalities.
“I would favor a subsequent law with the legislature taking a closer look at this and really deciding what type of things do they want to put under this beach access banner,” Weber said.
“Or they could do something like to decide what type of things should they leave to the towns and what type of things should there be clear state standards up and down the state for, and come up with a little list for each of those things.”