Public Access to New Jersey beaches and waterways could expand
A proposed bill which underwent discussion Thursday in Toms River seeks to expand public access to beaches and waterways across the state. While mixed reaction was the verdict at the meeting, finding a utilitarian solution is something lawmakers are still working on.
The bill co-sponsored by New Jersey Senators Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R-Somerset) and Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), cites public rights to enjoy the state's tidal waters and shorelines for swimming, fishing, bathing or any other recreational use.
"I don't think there's anybody that disagrees that the 9-million citizens of New Jersey have a right to the beach," said Smith. "The question is, how do you frame that, so that you fairly balance these interests and the public does have access."
Smith hopes the timetable for a consensus bill may be ready by the end of the fall or spring 2017 to be sent to Governor Christie's desk. A non-consensus bill may take even longer.
Should it be enacted, it would expand public access points on beaches and waterways throughout the state, make private beaches public, and additional access by marina points, which is drawing opposition from those businesses.
"For us, it's not a matter of beach access, it's public access to the waterways," said Jim Cerrutie of Fair Haven Yacht Works. "As a marina owner, we do that through the nature of our business."
He says their business is done by providing that path to the waters, which include service and maintenance for boats.
If one of the aims is to create full-time access, Cerrutie believes that marinas should be exempt from that kind of stipulation. "We feel that marinas should be exempted from the public access rules because...we are already providing that," said Cerrutie.
He feels the thought of adding 24/7 provisions would be a hard task to follow because they are responsible for other people's property.
"It raises a lot of security issues and liability issues," said Cerrutie. "You can't put us in a box and give us all these rules and regulations. Your going to force a lot of small businesses like mine out of business."
"There have to be reasonable regulations with regard to marinas, and this seemed to be settled back in the 2012 rules," said Smith. "There's no intention on the part of the legislature to say they're should be 24/7 access in marinas. That's crazy."
The bill isn't carved in stone yet and Smith believes they're may have been some overreaction from marinas, but they will look everything over to make sure all is fair.
"The public's right to the beach should be put in statute and solidified so that there is a clear understanding of what that means," said Smith.
If it does pass, the bill could significantly alter the Jersey economy, specifically if municipalities would be required to turn private beaches into public ones. It could mean more lifeguard positions, and more beach badge sales.
The bill would also change the ways municipalities plan public access points.
"Your heard a number of people saying there's no planning, I think there's some truth to that," said Smith.
Currently towns are required to update their municipal master plans, a process that allows taxpayers to offer recommendations for future development.
It might be time-consuming, considering that each municipality has its own 10-year schedule. However, the proposed legislation would include a list of changes.
"This bill would say that one of the elements of a municipal master plan would be the issue of beach access in their community," said Smith. "Where it should be located, what facilities should be located nearby, etc."
However NJ DEP Commissioner Bob Martin's Chief Adviser Ray Cantor says they've been enforcing the public trust doctrine and requiring public access for more than three decades.
They also have a program that works with NJ towns providing grants in their efforts to make things better than they are currently, but they face a number of challenges whether it's in planning, cooperation or money.
"When new development comes in,we believe that public access should be provided to those areas," said Cantor. "We're working with towns to plan for that access and to plan for that development."
They support the public trust doctrine he adds, but they feel the verbiage in this bill needs refinement to take private property into account.
"We don't think that single family homeowners should have to allow people to cross their properties to get to their backyard," said Cantor. "We don't think that marinas should have to provide 24/7 access, we don't think existing facilities, just trying to improve their building, should have to provide additional public access."
New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel concurs with the senator on the purpose of the bill, to a point.
"Too many municipalities want the taxpayers and the public to pay to fix their beaches but don't want the public to use those beaches they paid for," said Tittel. "This is a step in the right direction to ensure that the waterfronts and the waterways that belong to all of us, the public will have access to."
The bill would ensure all approvals, permits, administrative orders and consent decree's issued will match the verbiage of the public trust doctrine.
All sides seem to agree no access should be granted on waterways that could pose a threat to national security. In essence, you wouldn't be able to enter onto a beach or waterway that belongs to a military base.
The proposal would also empower DEP to deny public access if waters or shorelines provide habitats for endangered species.
The discussion isn't over just yet. Smith encourages you to continue voicing your concerns and potential solutions.
"This is a work in progress. We'd love to hear from them," said Smith. "Ultimately we want to do the right thing by the citizens, by the municipalities, by the people who own property on the shore. And it's a very tough balance."