New Jersey trying to write public waterways access into law
ATLANTIC CITY — Governments as far back as the Roman Empire have recognized it, but New Jersey is trying to enshrine in law the public's right to access waterways and shorelines.
A state Assembly committee advanced bills Monday that would expressly require the state's Public Trust Doctrine to be applied to coastal development, protection and funding issues.
The doctrine holds that the state's waterways including the ocean, bays and rivers are common property held in trust by the state for the use of all people.
It has been at the heart of decades of battles between access advocates and government and private property owners in a state where demand for access to the water remains high, but so do physical and legal obstacles.
Some local communities have actively worked to discourage outsiders from using their beaches by restricting beach badge sales to residents-only (something that was struck down by the courts); drastically limiting public parking, prohibiting food on the beach, and refusing to provide public restrooms.
"There are some shore towns that want public money, they want us to fix their beaches, but then they don't want the public to have access to those beaches," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a leading advocate for greater public access to New Jersey's shorelines, added, "There are more people wanting to come to the edge of the water, and we need to come up with ways to accommodate that."
Dillingham was part of a task force of environmental and business interests that advised lawmakers on what should be in the bill. The New Jersey Business and Industry Association, which also had a representative on the task force, said Monday it opposes some of the bill's proposals, and would like to water down the extent to which public access would be required.
Ray Cantor advised the state Department of Environmental Protection under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie as it rewrote New Jersey's beach access regulations following their invalidation by a state court, which deemed them excessive. Those changes included eliminating uniform statewide standards for access and amenities, in many cases allowing coastal municipalities to decide themselves what level of access the public should have to their shorelines.
Those changed rules were struck down following a court challenge from environmental groups in 2015.
Now an executive with the business and industry association, Cantor said "common sense" changes are needed to the proposed bill, including requiring "reasonable" public access, instead of mandating access "to the greatest extent practicable."
The group succeeded in getting one of its proposed amendments included in the bill, a provision to exempt relatively minor permits from the requirement to study and provide public access.
Jeff Kolakowski of the New Jersey Builders Association worried about the bill's effect on private property.
"We're dealing with a balancing act between the Public Trust Doctrine and the constitutional rights of private property," he said.
He added he is worried that, "If you're replacing a deck in the back of your house, you could have to provide a public access point."
Dillingham of the American Littoral Society called such comments "claptrap and hysteria, creating bogeymen that aren't there."
The bill also exempts waterfront sites like hazardous chemical plants, oil refineries or other sites deemed critical infrastructure for military or homeland security purposes from public access requirements.
The Legislature has been trying to enact a public access bill since 2016; a prior version failed to reach the governor's desk, and the process began anew last year, this time under Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
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