While access to New Jersey waterfronts has improved in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled an uncomfortable truth: as residents seek out open space, waterfront access is far from equitable.

A report published by The Waterfront Alliance found when it comes to accessibility of waterfronts in the New Jersey-New York harbor region, 30% are accessible. Only 9% of waterfronts in the areas of highest needs such as along the Passaic and Elizabeth rivers, are publicly accessible, the report found.

Program Manager Sarah Dougherty said everyone in New Jersey has a right through The Public Trust Doctrine and codified through state law to access their waterfronts. Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a public access law that expanded those rights. But it didn't go far enough to make sure public access is equitably distributed and enforced throughout the region, Dougherty said.

Access to waterfronts is different from access to the water, said Dougherty. The Waterfront Alliance is calling for zoning and permitting policies that would change the way city agencies allow for things like natural shorelines instead of the concrete bulkheads typically built along urban waterfronts.

It's difficult to pay to create access to waterfronts where it's needed, said Dougherty. Park funding is lacking so the alliance is calling on different ways of state and local funding to be redirected, especially in under-served areas so they're not just relying on private investment through new waterfront development.

The state's Municipal Public Access Plan is trying to get 231 municipalities to adopt public-access plans that require some public input but Dougherty said the alliance is calling on better incentives so the municipalities adopt those plans and create better metrics for reaching a more diverse group, especially communities of color and low-income communities.

Liberty State Park in Jersey City is an example of waterfront parkland that advocates say has been in danger from privatization plans since it opened in 1976. Friends of Liberty State Park are circulating an online petition to push for the Liberty State Park Protection Act to protect the park from large-scale development and a golf-course project.

The Waterfront Alliance has also launched a campaign called "Rise to Resilience" to demand laws to protect coastal communities from sea level rise and  to ensure property maintenance and waterfront access.

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