TRENTON, N.J., (AP) — A New Jersey Senate panel took a step Monday toward ensuring that state taxpayers whose money is used to repair beaches can actually use them.
The Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a bill requiring that beach repair projects that get state funding provide public access. The committee amended the bill to add the access requirement after testimony in Trenton from the American Littoral Society, a New Jersey coastal issues group that has been fighting for years for better public access to the state’s coastline.
The original bill would have encouraged projects to provide public access in order to be funded, but did not require it.
“It is beyond common sense that the public would pay millions of dollars to support shore-protection projects, which protect private property, and not be guaranteed meaningful access to those beaches and waterfronts,” said Stacy McCormack, an official with the group. “It’s really easy — public dollars should be going to enhance public enjoyment of the waterfront.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the amendment “an important breakthrough for public access.”
Requiring better public access to newly repaired beaches has long been a goal of environmentalists and other shore advocates. They note that many shore towns discourage public access by blocking off sections of the coastline, and failing to provide parking and restrooms.
Mantoloking, for example, limits on-street parking to no more than two hours in all but a tiny section of the borough. A sea wall blocks access to the sand in Sea Bright, public stairs over it are sparse, and there is little to no parking beyond a municipal lot at the southern end of town.
Northern sections of Long Beach Island severely limit on-street parking. And private homeowner associations have erected fences and gates in sections of Ocean County along Route 35. That has the practical effect of restricting access to those beaches to residents who live nearby and can walk to and from the sand.
All those areas were pummeled by Superstorm Sandy and will see their beaches replenished and repaired by a combination of federal, state and local funds. That makes now the perfect time to require that shore towns wanting state money require new or enhanced public access, rather than just encouraging it.
But it is far from clear that the change will ultimately become law. New Jersey’s new beach access regulations, which were widely panned at a series of statewide public hearings in 2012, let individual towns decide for themselves what level of access is appropriate. Under the administration of the state’s previous governor, Jon Corzine, the state mandated uniform access standards for the entire shore. But those rules were struck down after a court challenge.
“Everyone agrees that access under the common law of New Jersey is an absolute right,” said Sen. Bob Smith. “Our problem, to be candid, is the DEP.”
He said the committee originally sought a less restrictive bill, fearing that if communities were required to add public access, they or the state would opt not to carry out the projects.
DEP Larry Ragonese noted that Sandy hit just a few weeks after Commissioner Bob Martin signed the new regulations in October 2012.
“During the past 18 months we, and the towns, have been in recovery mode from Sandy, focused on recovery and not access,” he said. “We will soon be turning our attention back to access, but all of last year was just making sure there was a shore to access.”
He said three beach towns have added access points over the past two years, and more are planned.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar bill passed by the previous legislature.
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