GALLOWAY, N.J. - The state's proposed new beach-access regulations took a beating Tuesday for the second week in a row, with residents speaking out at a hearing in Atlantic County against a plan that would give towns a much greater say in deciding how much access was appropriate for them.
"This document says, 'Trust me: I know what's best for you,' " said Tom Siciliano, a fisherman from Little Egg Harbor Township. "I don't trust government."
"There used to be a governor that would say, 'Come to the Jersey Shore,' " added Paul Harris, an official with the New Jersey Beach Buggy Association. "This was to promote tourism, to get people to come to the beach. What do you say now: 'Come to the Jersey Shore, but you'll have limited access and parking?' "
The regulations rely more on cooperation from towns than on threats from state regulators. The rules let towns decide for themselves what level of public access is appropriate, subject to state approval.
After the public-comment period ends next month, the agency will decide whether to finalize the rules.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocacy group, said New Jersey's Shore towns have shown repeatedly that they would side with oceanfront homeowners against public access.
"The idea that towns should be given the authority to manage public access, given their history of having police officers chase people off beaches," he said, "is not the way New Jersey should be protecting access to the beach, which belongs to the public."
The state rewrote beach-access rules this year after a 2008 appeals court ruling that struck down more specific rules requiring parking, public-access points every quarter mile, and restrooms near beaches.
Ray Cantor, a top aide to Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Martin, said the new rules aimed to provide for local flexibility, while still maintaining "better access in more appropriate locations."
The court ruling came from a lawsuit brought by Avalon, which claimed the state overstepped its bounds by requiring too much public access and unreasonable requirements. The stricter set of regulations had been issued under former Commissioner Lisa Jackson, now head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The court agreed and struck down the rules. Martin said the state would now seek to have access points at half-mile intervals, but that standard would not be set in stone.
Most of the gains in public access to New Jersey's coastal and tidal waters have come after lengthy, costly court battles against towns that have used a variety of strategies to keep outsiders off their sand.
In Mantoloking, beachgoers can park their cars on most public streets for a maximum of two hours a day. In parts of Long Beach Island, such as Loveladies, many streets dead-end with private driveways and signs warning, "Private drive. No public beach access."
The new rules ask, but don't require, coastal towns to adopt a public-access plan. For towns that balk, the state has several punishments. One is cutting the town off from open-space funding under the state Green Acres program. Another is ranking that town lower on the state's list for beach-replenishment money. And a third is denying the town permits for beach and dune maintenance.
Andrew Bednarek, Avalon's borough administrator, said the old rules were "unreasonable."
"I applaud the DEP," he said, "for abandoning the one-size-fits-all approach."