- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The state Legislature voted Monday to restore rules mandating public beach access that were struck down by a court last month.

Lawmakers in both houses approved a bill to restore the rules that were in place on Dec. 22 when an appeals court voided them, saying the state Department of Environmental Protection did not have the legal authority to issue them.

Some shore municipalities have long sought to discourage outsiders from using their beaches by restricting access points, severely limiting nearby parking and not providing public restrooms. The practical effect was that the beaches were virtually impossible to use for anyone who did not live close by.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the court was wrong when it struck down the DEP’s powers to regulate towns to require beach access.

“This will give DEP the powers to require access for people of New Jersey that actually own those beaches and waterfronts,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do to make sure that the towns, beach clubs and marinas and other property owners are not able to block public access from the rest of us.”

The bill explicitly states that the DEP has authority to regulate beach access. But it does not strengthen the rules that were in place last month.

Many environmental groups oppose those rules, which let towns decide for themselves what level of public access is appropriate. They complained that the rules did 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 Republican Gov. Chris Christie succeeded Corzine, the DEP rewrote the rules to give communities more latitude in granting beach access.

The appeals court ruling said the DEP was not authorized by the Legislature to require public beach access in coastal development projects, and it tossed out the rules. That threatened several things, including the public’s right to get onto the sand at beaches and access riverbanks in urban areas.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin told a Senate panel on Friday that it also jeopardized the ongoing beach replenishment projects that are widening beaches from Monmouth to Cape May counties and that require public access points.

“It’s absolutely necessary that this law pass,” Martin told the state Senate Environment Committee. “Otherwise we can’t guarantee public access.”

The bill does not specify particular access points or set a minimum number of them.

The bill now goes to Christie.


Follow Wayne Parry at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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