The general public must be given access to shorelines in New Jersey after Gov. Chris Christie signed a law on Tuesday restoring the state's public access rules that were struck down by a court decision last month.

Seaside Heights, New Jersey (Kena Betancur, Getty Images)
Seaside Heights, New Jersey (Kena Betancur, Getty Images)

The Republican presidential candidate on Tuesday signed a bill explicitly giving the state Department of Environmental Protection the authority to require public access to the state's ocean, bay and riverfront areas.

An appeals court had ruled in December that the state Legislature never gave the DEP the authority to require public beach access. The court then struck down rules issued by the DEP that ensured the public's right to access waterfront areas, leaving no requirements in place.

The bill signed by Christie restores the status quo that had existed before the court ruling.

"Without it, the state could not require public access," DEP Commissioner Robert Martin said. "Any guarantee of public access, from urban waterways to our coastal regions, would be eliminated."

But environmentalists and beach access advocates want the state to strengthen the access requirements.

"Even though today was an important step in the right direction, we need the DEP to require real public access," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "The legislature needs to further the Public Trust Doctrine by passing additional legislation that will standards for DEP in requiring towns require access to the beaches belong to all of us."

The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal concept dating back to the Roman Empire, holding that the waters of the state are held in a public trust for all of its citizens to use.

Some shore municipalities have long sought to discourage outsiders from using their beaches by restricting access points, severely limiting parking and not providing public restrooms.

The bill restores -- but does not strengthen -- the rules that were in place last month. It does not specify particular access points or set a minimum number of them.

Many environmental groups oppose those rules, which let towns decide for themselves what level of public access is appropriate. They complain that the rules do not go far enough to protect the public's right to reach the water.

They favor previous rules generated by the administration of former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine that imposed uniform access requirements along the shoreline, including access points every quarter-mile.

When Christie succeeded Corzine, the DEP rewrote the rules to give communities more latitude in granting beach access, letting each community decide for itself what level of access is appropriate.

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