NEWARK, N.J. - Rules recently implemented by New Jersey's environmental authority unjustly limit the public's access to beaches and waterways while protecting the interests of industry and wealthy landowners, two environmental groups claim in a lawsuit filed against the state.
The notice of appeal was filed Tuesday in Superior Court in Trenton by the NY/NJ baykeeper and the Hackensack riverkeeper. It claims the state Department of Environmental Protection exceeded its authority when it adopted the rules last month.
The Public Access Rule grants more power to local communities to write their own access plans, subject to state approval. It took effect Nov. 5 and applies to more than 200 towns.
The suit claims the DEP's actions violated the Public Trust Doctrine, as defined in one of the agency's own handbooks. The doctrine "provides that public rights to tidal waterways and their shores in the state are held by the state," and "establishes the right of the public to fully utilize these lands and waters for a variety of public activities," according to the agency reference.
Under the doctrine, it is New Jersey's responsibility to manage the tidal waters and shoreline for the benefit of all, said Capt. Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack riverkeeper.
"When DEP adopted its new rule, they, in effect, declared that the state no longer has to uphold its duty," Sheehan said.
The suit claims most developers will no longer be required to provide public access if they expand or redevelop a site.
The DEP should "protect the rights of all the people in the state, not just industrial interests and wealthy landowners," Sheehan and baykeeper Debbie Mans said in a statement.
A DEP spokesman denied that the new rule limited public access.
"The Public Trust Doctrine sets the starting point for public access," Larry Hajna said. "The Public Access Rule used the Public Trust Doctrine to build upon and enhances public access. Absolutely nothing in the rule diminishes the public access that we already have."
Officials in coastal and urban communities have praised the rule for giving them the tools to make access better for everyone, Hajna said.