Two New Jersey lawmakers say they plan to introduce a bill Thursday that would restore the state's right to require public access to its beaches and waterways.
The bill by Democratic Sens. Bob Smith and Jeff Van Drew comes in response to a Dec. 22 state appellate court ruling that struck down the Department of Environmental Protection's authority to require beach access as a condition of waterfront development and coastal construction permits.
It would explicitly give the DEP legislative authority to impose beach access requirements, which have long been fought over in New Jersey. Van Drew said he intends the bill to restore at least the level of beach access that existed before the court ruling, even though he said the DEP would probably have to issue a new set of regulations if the bill is enacted.
“That's certainly my intent,'' he said. “This court ruling created a host of problems with tourism, beach replenishment, fishing and recreation, and most importantly, beach access. It would allow a private club or even a municipality to not allow the public to access the waterfront. Everyone in the state of New Jersey should be able to access the water.''
The challenge was brought by environmental groups claiming the previous rules wrongly turned parts of the shoreline over to private property owners and corporations. But other groups said that by throwing out the access rules, the court endangered public access to all beaches and waterways by leaving no rules in place.
Groups on both sides of the issue called on the Legislature to clearly define who represents the public's right to access beaches and waterways.
The issue has been fought over for decades. Under the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, the DEP imposed uniform access requirements along the 127-mile coastline, including having access points every quarter-mile. An appeals court invalidated those rules in 2009, leading the department to issue new rules leaving it up to individual municipalities to decide what level of beach access is appropriate for them. Those were the rules invalidated by the court last month.
Some New Jersey shore municipalities have long sought to discourage outsiders from using their beaches by restricting access points, severely limiting parking near the beach, and not providing public restrooms, with the practical effect being that the beaches were virtually impossible to use for anyone who did not already live close by.
The bill to be introduced Thursday does not specify particular access points, or set a minimum amount of them. That would presumably be up to the DEP in issuing new regulations. The department said it would testify at a Senate committee hearing on the bill Thursday, but declined comment Wednesday evening.