Proposed legislation could improve public access to beaches that benefit from taxpayer-funded beach restoration projects, including private beaches.
The bill would require that beaches where replenishment projects take place provide public access to the beach or be exempted from doing so by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Some private sites could be forced to comply by allowing public access. Under the bill, the DEP would rule on whether private beach clubs and other restricted beach facilities could close public access to the waterfront.
But in cases where the private site's restriction stands, owners would have to pay into a newly created account to fund better access at nearby beach or waterfront stretches instead.
In January, the Attorney General's Office settled six cases with private beach clubs in Monmouth County, and an additional case with the borough of Sea Bright, which were accused of limiting access to state-owned land. Beach access advocates say they hope the law may be applied to parts of Long Beach Island, whose many beach pathways from street to shore are often marked "Private" or "No Trespassing."
The Monmouth County cases have tested the state's Public Trust Doctrine, which allows the public the right to reach the water's edge. The DEP issued its own public-access standards in 2007.
The proposed law would exclude any site that may be considered a homeland security target or otherwise incompatible with public access from having to provide entry.
But one clause states that any municipality or other entity that received money for beach replenishment from the Shore Protection Fund would have to provide on-site access, unless the DEP decided against it.
State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, Somerset, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Andrew R. Ciesla, R-Ocean, Monmouth, said the law was designed "to put structure on beach access."
"Right now, the rule is anything goes. And we think that's unreasonable," he said. "So this is to rein in the DEP on this issue."
The bill was to be considered Monday by the Senate Environmental and Energy Committee, but Smith said his committee held the bill because members wanted to hear from acting DEP commissioner Bob Martin, who Smith said was "fully immersed" in the issue and had said he would take a position soon.
Jeanne Herb, director of policy and planning for the DEP, said the agency works with developers of sites around tidal waterways to "maximize opportunities" for public access to waterfront.
Currently, she said, owners of restricted sites - such as private ports or chemical plants - provide funds to municipalities on a case-by-case basis to help pay for waterfront access elsewhere nearby, funding walkways, parking and street lights.
To formalize that arrangement, she said, "The bill would statutorially create that fund."
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who previously sponsored legislation defining beach access, said he was strongly in favor of opening up beach entry to all and would accept private clubs being charged if they could not provide access.
But he disagreed with the idea that homeowners along the shore had to allow walkways along the sides of their properties, if, as he put it, "that means unfettered public access, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
He also disagreed with companies running private plants along waterways having to pay into the new fund.
"That's going to an extreme, and I oppose that," he said. "It's one more way we're making it difficult for businesses to run here."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club chapter, said he supported the bill as a compromise between the current broad rules and other, more limited proposals.
"At least this lets some access," he said, adding that he feared fiercer laws would completely water down the DEP's public access regulations, which he said, "have been under attack."
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