New Jersey municipalities will have more power to enforce curfews or otherwise restrict public access to waterways under a state proposal.
The Department of Environmental Protection is seeking public comment on new beach-access rules, described as a compromise that will let people enjoy the water without imposing unreasonable demands on shore towns.
Among the changes: towns can set beach curfews, businesses can expand or renovate without adding more water access and the state will not withhold beach-replenishment money from resort towns that want their own stricter rules.
In an unusual move, the DEP released its proposal weeks before publishing it in the New Jersey Register to give people more time to comment.
"Basically, we're looking to improve access to shore points and better communicate where that access can be found," DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said.
As part of the debate over the new rules, the DEP will examine whether to allow Atlantic City's beach bars to remain on the sand year-round instead of forcing them to spend as much as $400,000 to dismantle them at the end of summer for the beginning of the storm season, Ragonese said. But the DEP's draft proposal does not explicitly address the city's popular beach bars. State lawmakers drafted special legislation in 2009 that would have had the same effect, but it never was approved.
"What Atlantic City needs to do is take advantage of its geography," said Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic. "They have a view of the ocean and the coast. I think you may see more casinos take advantage of that if they didn't have to incur the expense of taking these things down each year."
Likewise, marinas will not have to provide 24-hour access to the public if they want to renovate or expand their operations, and towns will not have to subscribe to strict rules about parking, public restrooms or beach access at state-designated intervals.
And existing businesses will not have to provide new public access if they want to repair or expand.
The state rescinded its beach-access rules in 2009 after Avalon in Cape May County sued and persuaded a state court to overturn them.
"Avalon successfully challenged the public-access rules that were drafted under former Gov. Jon Corzine because they did not make sense, they were ambiguous and they represented a one-size-fits-all approach to managing a very important environmental asset," Mayor Martin Pagliughi said in a statement.
"Avalon has never had any issues involving public beach access. I am encouraged by the initiative to use a common-sense approach to deal with public access to beaches in communities where problems exist," he said.
Ocean City put an end to its 10 p.m. public curfew to comply with the state's rules. The state had threatened to withhold funding for beach projects in the resort and other beach towns unless they complied with its access rules.
Interim Business Administrator Michael Dattilo said the city supports the state's concept of providing more public access but is opposed to rules that may put the public in danger. The curfew was in place to keep beachgoers out of the water at night when there are no lifeguards, and swimmers in distress are virtually impossible to spot, he said.
"We've had over the years some tragedies. In general we support these kinds of things being decided at the local level. We think our elected officials know what's best for Ocean City," he said.
The city recently expanded public access to the water with the purchase of the 2nd Street marina, which has a fishing and crabbing pier.
And on the oceanfront, the city has beach access at virtually every street end from the Ocean City-Longport Bridge south to Corsons Inlet State Park.
Even in Upper Township, home to one of the least-developed public beaches in New Jersey, access remains an issue. Strathmere's beaches are devoid of the boardwalks, amusements and food stands that dominate many resort beaches.
But it also had relatively few public bathrooms. To comply with the rules, the township added more portable potties.
Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo said those bathrooms will remain, even under the more relaxed state rules.
"We'd considered the distance for beachgoers and lifeguards so you're not too far from any location," Palombo said. "We want to make sure people aren't inconvenienced."
The township never had a beach curfew and does not intend to impose one, he said.
"We don't limit the hours people can spend on the beach," he said. "We don't want to limit the time people can spend fishing, depending on the tides."
Not everyone is a fan of the DEP's kinder, gentler approach to beach rules.
The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club said the new rules are too lax and could limit public access to the water.
"We knew the old rules were a bit of a reach, but we think the department went too far the other way," spokesman Jeff Tittel said.
"Beach access is important for the quality of life in New Jersey so people can kayak or swim or fish or walk on the beach," he said. "It's also important for tourism. The more people feel walled off from the beaches, the more likely they are to go elsewhere."
Tittel said the Sierra Club endorsed the concept of letting beach bars remain in place over the winter and letting marinas close to the public at night.
But the new rules, which will be drafted on a town-by-town basis, seem to give too much ground to municipalities that might see cost-savings in curbing waterway access, he said.
"The concern we have is there is no requirement for the towns to commit to public access. There is no hook to make them comply because (the DEP) took the beach-money incentive away."
And Tittel said there are no penalties for towns that do not comply.
"There is no real standard for what should be in a town's plan - so many access points per mile of beachfront, so many restrooms, so many parking spaces," he said. "You don't want to make the rules hard and fast, but you want a range so towns have guidance."
The state will publish the proposal Sept. 1 and conduct public hearings on the changes.
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