ATLANTIC CITY - Fishermen and marina owners came out ahead Monday in new beach-access rules published by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
But beach-access advocates say the new rules amount to minor tinkering that still does not do nearly enough to prevent shore towns from having too much say in who can reach the beach and where they can do it.
The DEP issued its long-awaited revisions to the beach-access rules, which were the subject of contentious public hearings last year in which critics said the new plans to let local towns write their own beach-access plans would only embolden them to be more exclusionary than before. The plans would have to be approved by the DEP before they could go into effect.
The changes announced Monday include more explicit protection of the rights of anglers to access the beach day and night to fish. They also require proposed municipal beach-access plans to be posted on the DEP website; allow marinas to expand existing facilities without providing new beach access (though new development on adjacent sites would require additional public access); and require public access to the main route of the Hudson Waterfront Walkway and adjacent piers on a 24-hour basis, except in what the DEP described as "very limited circumstances."
"The proposed access rules recognize the Jersey Shore and waterfronts are diverse, dynamic areas that provide a wide range of public-access opportunities, from beach access to swimming areas, from places to congregate to places for solitude, and from places to surf, launch a boat, kayak, or fish," the DEP said in announcing the new rules. "They also recognize that legitimate recreational opportunities also include the ability to have restaurants and other public establishments along the waterfronts, in appropriate locations."
Beach-access advocates were quick in their denunciation of the new rules, which will be the subject of forthcoming public hearings in Monmouth and Cape May Counties.
"They made some minor changes, but didn't fix the fundamental problems," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal-advocacy group. "Efforts to increase public access to the shore will still face an uphill fight; towns will be in charge; less access will be provided by coastal development; and some towns will be empowered to be more exclusionary."
New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said the new rules made "beach access" an oxymoron.
"They're siding with the one-percenters against the 99 percenters," he said. "They're siding with the people with the big houses on the beach, not those who actually spend the money that the tourism economy actually needs."
The NY/NJ Baykeeper group said, "The changes do not alter the NJ DEP's wholesale surrender to big-business interests on urban waterfronts."
The revision, the group said, "fails to address the most basic problems with the originally proposed rule: that the rule lacks standards for the approval of municipal access plans, which will result in a patchwork of access rules." It also noted that a new waiver rule the DEP adopted would give it the power to set aside any of its rules should the department determine they constitute "an undue burden."
The state says it had to act and give more local control over access after a court decision struck down more stringent rules that spelled out uniform standards for each shore town. New Jersey feels it can accomplish more by working with shore towns and giving them flexibility rather than dictating a "one-size-fits-all" access policy to them.
But many beachgoers fear the new rules would reward the very people who for decades have made it so hard for outsiders to reach the beach. The DEP does not make specific requirements for how the towns should allow access.
Some shore towns use tactics such as eliminating or severely restricting parking, not providing restrooms, and banning food and drink from the beach. That places some beaches off-limits to anyone but locals who can walk to the beach, then back home to eat or answer nature's call. For decades, Bay Head's beaches were legally off-limits to anyone but residents, until a court forced them to admit anyone who bought a badge.