- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey’s environmental protection department says a bill being fast-tracked through the state Legislature would restore the public beach access rules that were struck down by an appeals court in December.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said a bill introduced Thursday would restore the same rules that were in place before the court stuck them down. The rules govern how and where the public can access the state’s ocean and bay beaches, and riverfronts.

The Dec. 22 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 river banks in urban areas. Martin said 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.”

Martin said after the hearing that passage of the law would reinstate the same rules that were in place before the court struck them down. Those rules were hotly contested by environmental and coastal access groups who complained that they did not go far enough to protect the public’s right to reach the water.

The rules leave it up to individual municipalities to decide what level of public access is suitable. Rules generated by former Jon Corzine, a Democrat, 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. Martin said those rules will remain the same, at least for now.

“We’re happy with the rules we have in place,” he said. “They’ve worked extremely well.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disagreed, saying the DEP could do far more to enforce the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal concept dating to the Roman Empire holding that the state’s waterways are owned by and reserved for the use of the public.

“By rolling back beach access protections, the Christie administration actually got rid of protections,” he said. “Their bad rules were struck down by the court, and now we have none in place. Now we need the legislature to fix that and come up with standards that will ensure the Public Trust Doctrine gets implemented.”

Sen. Bob Smith said he expects to appoint a committee later this year to consider changes to the state’s beach access rules. But he said that would not happen under the current bill, which is expected to receive final approval Monday and go to Christie.


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

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