LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Like the sea itself - or perhaps more like a long-running soap opera - the tide seems to constantly ebb and flow over beach access at the New Jersey Shore.
Over the past several decades, the issue has many times played out in the courts over whether the public has enough access to the state's 127-mile Atlantic coastline or if the rights of municipalities and beachfront property owners are being unfairly infringed upon by mandatory regulations.
The State of New Jersey has been found on both sides of the topic - sometimes being accused of trying to take too much control of the strands in the name of the public good while at other times defending regulations that seem to limit the public's access to beaches and waterways.
About three dozen oceanfront property owners here are currently asking the court to decide whether the state has overreached in its attempt to take parcels of their properties for a massive storm protection project. The state says it needs the easements from the property owners to protect the beaches.
"Beach access is a question that seems to move back and forth over time in New Jersey," concedes Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a Highlands, N.J.-based nonprofit which promotes the study and conservation of the marine habitat.
"I think it has remained such a hot-button issue because everyone ultimately wants to be on the beach," Dillingham said.
And the idea that everyone wants to get to the beach - and whether they should have access - is a concept that dates back thousands of years to the Roman Empire and is one that has been applied on American soil since Colonial times. The Public Trust Doctrine established the public's right to use tidal waterways, including oceans, bays and tidal rivers, into perpetuity.
But getting in the way of that - and standing squarely between the beach-going public and New Jersey's beachfront - are at times the owners of expensive real estate who say they simply want to protect their property and investment through varying interpretations of that doctrine.
In previous decades, much of the tussle over the beach in the Garden State has centered on the requirement to purchase beach badges, with New Jersey being one of only a handful of places in the United States that require them.
Until the courts struck down such practices twenty years ago, some beach towns, like Bay Head in Ocean County, attempted to use the tags as a way to limit access by posting exorbitant prices for them or requiring that only property owners could obtain beach tags.
Other places, like Long Beach Township, have used other means, like offering few beach access points and having excessively limited public parking and scant public restrooms, as a means of limiting crowds.
While the entire 18-mile length of Long Beach Island's strands are open to the public, along its northern flank there are two-mile long sections where no public access points exist and signs posted by property owners that forbid trespassing from the streets to the beaches abound.
A group of 36 such property owners went to Superior Court on March 4 to ask a judge to throw out the state's eminent domain claims for easements on the strips of land the state says it needs access to so it can complete beach replenishment projects and build additional public access points.
The case, in which a ruling is imminent, is the court's latest dip into the state's murky coastal development rules.
John Buonocore, an attorney representing the homeowners, told Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford, that the state is "opportunistically seizing" the properties " . . . to accomplish what they haven't been able to accomplish in all these years" after numerous failed attempts to "expand public beaches" on Long Beach Island in recent decades.
The state argued before Ford that some laws allow the government to take complete ownership of a property for certain projects that are deemed in the public good. And that this project certainly meets the mandates that the legislature has given to the Department of Environmental Protection to take control of just the strips of land needed to build fatter beaches and wider dunes along the shoreline in places like the North Beach and Loveladies sections of Long Beach Township, Assistant Attorney General David Apy said in court.
In other cases, the state has been accused of not doing enough to protect the public.
In December, a state appellate court threw out rules put in place by Gov. Christie's administration in 2012 that opponents said limited public access to New Jersey's beaches and waterways. That was the latest chapter in a case that has spanned two decades, beginning in 2007, when the DEP under the Jon Corzine administration expanded its authority by requiring towns to build parking lots and restrooms every half mile along the entire coast if the towns were going to accept public money to replenish beaches.
The beach town of Avalon, Cape May County, sued the state and the state appellate court agreed that the DEP had gone too far with the new requirements and ruled the regulations were statutorily unauthorized and invalid.
In 2012, the DEP under the Christie administration adopted new regulations that left it up to individual towns to create their own beach access plans - a move the critics said was akin to allowing the rooster to watch the henhouse in places with long histories of attempting to limit public access.
Three months ago, the appellate division said the DEP is not authorized to promulgate rules under the Public Trust Doctrine.
In the meantime, the City of Margate, Atlantic County, is also challenging the state's dunes plan.
Margate and a handful of beachfront property owners filed suit against the state to prevent it from using eminent domain to seize 87 city owned beach lots and proceed with a plan to build dunes on the beach there as part of a massive Christie administration plan to build a dune system along the entire coastline.
The state says the dunes are necessary to ensure the public's access to Margate's beaches and protect public infrastructure and private property in the town and in the neighboring beach towns of Ventnor and Longport.
The court is expected to render a decision in that case following a three-day hearing in February in which Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez heard testimony on both sides of the issue.
"After Hurricane Sandy, we really thought there would be an improvement in terms of public access to beaches in this state," Ralph Coscia, president of the Point Pleasant-based Citizens Right to Access Beaches (CRAB). "But clearly there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. It's a fight we've been fighting for more than 20 years . . . in that time very little has changed."