LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N.J. - New Jersey might redo its proposed beach-access rules to more clearly spell out the public's right to reach the beach, a top environmental official said Thursday, as some at a public hearing likened the proposal to segregation-era racial politics.
Ray Cantor, a top aide to Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, acknowledged that many people had concerns about the proposed rules, which rely more on cooperation from towns than on threats from state regulators.
Before the fourth and final public hearing on the proposal, Cantor said the Department of Environmental Protection might amend its proposal to more clearly spell out access rights. He didn't give many examples of possible changes, but said one modification might be an amendment stating that fishermen are allowed on beaches at night.
"I met with some fishermen last night," Cantor said. "They thought that towns can keep them away from certain areas at night. To offer changes to these regulations, we'll consider that, and we may come back with additional amendments."
If that happens, it could delay the adoption of new rules about six months, he said.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocacy group, told Cantor before the hearing that allowing towns to shunt most of the public to certain beaches and away from others would create "a system of separate and unequal beach experiences."
At the hearing, Bill Wolfe, a former DEP employee, took the metaphor further.
"I recall whites-only drinking-water fountains," he said, drawing huge applause from the overflow crowd, which spilled into the parking lot. "That's what you have going on down here."
Cantor said the department had not heard anything in the first three public hearings to make it change its approach of working with Shore towns instead of dictating to them.
Four public hearings have drawn hundreds of New Jersey residents, the overwhelming majority of whom blasted the rules, saying they did not trust the state to fight for the public's right to reach the beach. They say giving more authority to towns would let them side with wealthy oceanfront homeowners who want the public kept away from their homes.
Under the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal concept adopted by New Jersey that dates to the Roman Emperor Justinian, the public has the right to swim in coastal waters and walk along shores. Courts have held that the public has the right to walk or sit on the sand up to the mean high-water mark.
Margaret O'Brien, a Holgate resident, urged residents to stand up for their rights.
"We became a public trust beach when we were one of the 13 colonies," she said. "That beach belongs to everyone in this room. Don't let them take your rights away!"
The state rewrote its beach rules this year after a court struck down old ones requiring access points every quarter-mile along the shore, as well as parking and bathrooms nearby.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by Avalon that said the state had overstepped its bounds by requiring too much public access, as well as with requirements such as 24-hour access to beaches and marinas.
The new rules ask - but don't require - coastal towns to adopt a public-access plan spelling out exactly where the public can get to the beach.