AVALON — Four years after this borough’s lawsuit led a court to strike down the state’s regulations on public beach access, a crowd mostly praised the amended rules in a public hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Marina owners, government officials and residents said the rules are fair and reasonable, while environmental group representatives said they will allow communities to unfairly restrict access to the shore.
“We’d like to see the rules go forward and be done with this,” said Rick Traber, owner of Pier 47 marina in Middle Township.
In 2008, Avalon won its state Supreme Court challenge to the Department of Environmental Protection’s rules that included mandates to provide access points every quarter-mile, bathrooms and parking. Private marinas would have had to provide public access, too.
Local governments would now be allowed to write their own rules. Access points every half-mile are suggested. If governments don’t approve their own plans, though, the state could withhold grant money and deny or delay beach maintenance projects.
Ray Cantor, a DEP official who presided over the hearing here, as well as a later one in Long Branch, Monmouth County, said no municipality has filed an access plan yet. But he said Long Beach Township has created an additional public access point through a once-wooded area, and Upper Township has agreed to build a public fishing pier.
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, and Ed Bonanno, an attorney for the NY/NJ Baykeeper association, criticized the rules. They said that towns have a notorious history of keeping the public off beaches if left to their own decisions.
“Some will be good, some will be bad,” said Bonanno, who thinks the legislature should pass a law setting guidelines for communities’ beach access rules.
Tittel repeated some phrases the Sierra Club has used in statements panning the rules, borrowing some language from the Occupy protest movement against social inequality.
“Instead of fixing the problems with the rules, the fix is in,” Tittel said. “These rules take the side of marina owners, people with large McMansions along the shore, casinos and developers, but not the 99 percent of us who use the shore on a regular basis.”
Meanwhile, Lower Township Mayor Mike Beck also said he supports the rules, as did Ship Bottom residents Ted and Dorothy Jedziniak.
“When you hear (the opponents) talk, it’s like you can’t get on to the beach anywhere,” said Ted Jedziniak, “and that just isn’t true.”
The state is gathering public comments on the rules through the DEP’s website until May 18. After that, staff will review the comments and make any necessary changes, with plans to finalize the rules by the middle of the summer.
The state has been revising the access rules since 2010 because of the court ruling, the legislature putting a moratorium on implementation of provisions requiring marina access and public pressure for more simplistic regulations.
The afternoon hearing in the borough municipal hall only lasted about 40 minutes.
At the Wednesday meeting in Long Branch, beach advocates opened a metal gate across the walkway leading to the beach at the end of Garfield Terrace, ignoring the sign that read “Private access, residents only.”
Their act, which took place before the evening meeting, was intended to make a point about the obstacles some shore towns and private property owners put between the public and the sand.
“We’re standing on land that belongs to all of us,” said Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Over there, that belongs to them,” he said, pointing to oceanfront homes.
At the meeting, Cantor said the access to the water was still there.
“It is private property, but the public does have access to it. If this is the biggest problem with public access we have, that’s not so bad.”
Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider said the site has been the focus of legal battles for at least 20 years, and he agreed it is privately owned. He said he does not know if the city has the power to do anything about the gate or the foreboding signs attached to it.
“That’s one of the whole problems with this: who enforces it?” asked Ralph Coscia, president of Citizens’ Right to Access Beaches. “We don’t know.”
He said New Jersey was making good progress toward ensuring public beach access under the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat. Corzine’s DEP commissioner issued the stricter rules that the Avalon court decision overturned.
“It looked like we were on the right track,” Coscia said. “Now it feels like we’re banging our heads against a wall.”
Joseph Pallotto, president of the Asbury Park Fishing Club, said his group has brought DEP officials to the gate to point it out. He also noted that no parking is allowed on the nearby streets, further deterring those who would use the beach.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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