SEASIDE HEIGHTS - New Jersey residents and environmental groups sparred with mayors and business groups Monday over how much control towns should have over public access to beaches.
Under new rules proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, municipalities would be asked to create their own plans for where, when and how to allow public access, subject to state approval. The redrafting of the regulations follows a 2008 appeals court ruling that undercut DEP's authority to force towns to provide parking, restrooms near beaches and public access points every quarter mile.
The new rules were lauded by the business coalitions, marina owners and half-dozen mayors who weighed in at Monday's public comment hearing - the third in as many weeks. Conversely, every private resident who testified expressed either opposition or mixed feelings toward the regulations, which DEP officials in Gov. Chris Christie's administration are expected to finalize next month.
The issue pits beachside businesses and municipalities seeking leeway in determining appropriate access against residents and visitors who are suspicious that the flexibility will be used to create de facto private beaches.
"Allowing municipalities to control the amount of access within their borders will in many instances eradicate public access altogether," warned Jillian Weislo of Edison Wetlands Association.
The court ruling followed a lawsuit brought by the Cape May County beach town of Avalon that claimed the state overstepped its bounds by requiring too much public access and imposing other unreasonable mandates, such as around-the-clock access to beaches and marinas. The stricter set of regulations had been issued under former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson, now head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
After the court agreed and struck down the rules, DEP developed new regulations which rely more on cooperation from towns rather than threats from state regulators. Coastal towns are encouraged - but not required - to adopt a state-approved public access plan, leading critics to charge that DEP is clearing the way for towns to inappropriately limit access.
"These rules do not in any sense delegate, abdicate or give away the department's jurisdiction for regulatory control over providing public access," said Ray Cantor, a top DEP official who presided over the public hearing.
Towns that do not provide proper access can face elimination of open space funding under the state Green Acres program, denial of town permits for beach and dune maintenance, and lower priority status for beach replenishment funds.
The rules drew vocal support from three groups: coastal mayors, who seek more local control; marina owners, who dislike having to adapt their property to accommodate public visitors; and commercial groups, who argue the state places an unfair burden on chemical and industrial facilities along the coast by requiring them to pay for public beaches.
"If the Christie administration wants to combat the anti-business perception based on the regulations of the past, it must support this rule," said NJ Business and Industry Association Vice President David Brogan.
On Wednesday, the Surfrider Foundation, an ocean conservation group, will unveil a coalition of 40 groups opposed to the rules and present more than 1,000 letters of opposition addressed to the governor. John Weber, who coordinates the foundation's northeast regional operations, said in a telephone interview that the coalition includes the Sierra Club, NJ Audubon Society and local fishing clubs.
The DEP will make a final ruling next month following a fourth and final hearing June 2 in Long Beach Township, a town frequently cited by beach-access advocates as one of the worst offenders in denying access to the public.