By Michele S. Byers

It's been six months since Superstorm Sandy pounded New Jersey, and summer is almost upon us.

Towns up and down the coast are preparing for Memorial Day weekend and the arrival of beach lovers, fishermen, surfers, and boaters whose tourism dollars keep the Shore economy ticking.

Many Shore towns are still busy with post-Sandy repairs, like cleaning debris from the sand, helping businesses and homeowners recover, and rebuilding boardwalks. And they're counting on receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal funds to replenish eroded beaches and build dunes.

With so many projects underway, now would be the ideal time for the state to address a long-overdue and critical issue: public access. It's time to make sure the taxpayers who foot the bill for beach improvements have access to those expensive strips of sand they're saving.

Unfortunately, two legislative committees recently declined to insert language explicitly requiring public beach access into a bill that would establish requirements for a "Shore protection project" priority list. Members of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee said in late April that they didn't want any impediments to efforts to restore the Shore. Members of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee followed suit on May 13.

No one wants to delay the Shore's recovery. But there's no common sense in maintaining the current system.

Public access to water and tidal areas is a right of all New Jersey citizens, but, when it comes to enforcement, the state's head has been in the sand. New Jersey has too many stretches of shoreline with few beach-access points, limited parking near the beach, and no public restrooms. Public access means tourism dollars, which help local businesses with recovery.

The proposed bill would give priority to Shore protection projects that provide or improve public access, but it doesn't go far enough. As it reads now, the bill doesn't explicitly link funding priorities and access.

It's a disconnect that shouldn't be allowed.

"Public access must be a required part of all projects, before they can be considered for funding," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group.

Dillingham added that federal guidelines for funding contain similar language to ensure that projects are public in nature, and not private.

The beaches, ocean, and tidal waterways belong to everyone. New Jersey should not miss this opportunity to make sure that all residents have meaningful access to the investments made with their tax dollars, and to catalyze the Shore's economic recovery.

Please contact your district's legislators, and the bill sponsors, State Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D., Essex), and ask that they amend the bill (S.B. 2600/A.B. 3892) to tie state funding to beach access.

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Contact her via www.njconservation.org or info@njconservation.org.