Wednesday, March 09, 2011, 6:00 PM
ATLANTIC CITY — New Jersey’s main beach access advocacy groups have called on Gov. Chris Christie to scrap a plan to let individual shore towns decide what level of public access should be required of them.
They launched a campaign recently to send 1,000 postcards to the governor and state officials, asking them not to let beach towns use restrictive policies or tricks such as limiting parking, restrooms or public access points to keep all but locals off their sand.
Beach access advocates say the state’s proposal will undo decades of progress in ensuring the public’s right to walk on the state’s beaches — many of which are maintained with tax dollars from throughout the state.
They also want guarantees that towns taking public funds for beach restoration provide plenty of public access to those newly restored beaches.
“Fishermen, surfers and beachgoers have fought long and hard for effective rules to protect their rights to access the beach and tidal waters,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “These developing policies and rules under consideration roll back many of those hard-fought gains.
“There is a long history of many beach towns working against broad public access to the shore, and these proposals would give the fox authority over the hen house,” he said. “New Jersey needs strong state protection of public access rights because the beaches and tidal waters belong to the entire state, not just those lucky enough to live on the shore.”
The debate over New Jersey beach replenishment Obama’s 2010 budget seeks $45 million for beach projects requested by House and Senate members. New Jersey lawmakers say the budgeted amount would barely cover New Jersey’s projects let alone the entire nation’s. Members of the Surfrider Foundation say it’s just as well since they feel the Army Corps of Engineers replenishment projects changes the beach profile and ruins surfable waves. The Corps says that replenishment is necessary to protect real estate and tourism along the coastline. (Video by Andre Malok/The Star-Ledger) Watch video
Ray Cantor, an adviser to state Environmental Commissioner Bob Martin who is working with him on the proposed rule changes, said the goal is to improve beach access.
“To a large extent, the public has magnificent access to the Jersey shore,” Cantor said. “Up and down the coast, there are over 1,200 access points. We’re looking to build on that, not to take anything away.”
Beach access has long been a hotly disputed topic in New Jersey, where tourism is a $40 billion industry and the state’s 127 miles of beaches are a primary draw. Some Jersey shore beach towns have used various means to keep outsiders off their sand: Limit on-street parking, prohibit food and drink or provide no public toilet facilities.
Under the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal concept adopted by New Jersey that dates back to the Roman Emperor Justinian, the public has the right to swim in coastal waters and walk along their shores. Courts have held that the public has the right to walk or sit on the sand up to the mean high water mark — even on beaches where most of the sand is privately owned.
But many oceanfront homeowners either don’t know or don’t care, and routinely call the police when someone sets up a beach chair or a towel too close for their liking.
Under the previous administration of Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey required public access points every quarter-mile and bathrooms every half-mile on any beach that received public money for beach replenishment.
But an appeals court overturned those rules in 2008, deciding that the state had no right to order towns to allow 24-hour access to their beaches or to require restrooms there.
The new rules were proposed last summer. They will be published in early April in the New Jersey Register, followed by a 60-day public comment period. Then the Department of Environmental Protection will evaluate the responses before deciding whether to implement the changes. That could mean it will be summer 2012 before any significant changes are made.
“It is imperative that the state provides adequate guidelines to enhance public access to our beaches and coastal waters, because towns have historically had confusing and inconsistent local regulations,” said Ralph Coscia, president of Citizens’ Right to Access Beaches. “Some towns leave great distances between access points, and they have not recognized that basic amenities are part of beach access.”
For decades, Bay Head legally restricted its beaches to residents only, until a landmark 1984 court decision said public beaches must be open to anyone. And police in nearby Mantoloking zealously enforce a two-hour parking limit on most streets so beachgoers can’t park in one spot for two hours, then move their car. This makes it impractical for anyone but residents to use the beaches, some of which charge hundreds of dollars for a seasonal badge.
Earlier this year, the Surfrider Foundation commissioned a poll that found most New Jerseyans opposed changing beach access rules. The Rutgers-Eagleton survey found more than 82 percent of those surveyed want towns that get beach replenishment funds to provide better public access.
“We found that whether they live in West Trenton, West Caldwell or West Long Branch, most people think beach access is a reasonable expectation when their tax dollars help fund replenishment efforts in shore towns,” said Paul Shelly, secretary of the Surfrider Foundation’s Jersey Shore Chapter.
Cantor said the DEP will use the level of public access provided as one criterion in determining its rankings of which towns should qualify for state beach replenishment funding. But he said the state Legislature, not the DEP, makes the final funding decisions.
“I’m sure many people can name two or three towns out of the 127 miles of coastline where there’s not good access,” Cantor said. “The towns that don’t provide good access will be ranked lower on our priority ranking.”