The state Department of Environmental Protection made a muddle of the simple concept of public access to the beaches and bays with its overreaching 2007 rules. A state appeals court ended up slapping down the agency in a ruling that severely undermined the DEP's authority over the state's beaches.
What a shame.
And it was all so unnecessary.
Clearly, shore towns have an obligation - under decades of court rulings ensuring public access to the water - to provide reasonable parking, bathroom facilities and access points. "Public access" has no real meaning if a family from Metuchen has no place to park or go to the bathroom. (And, in fact, most shore towns in this area do provide ample parking and bathrooms. It's the exclusive towns on northern Long Beach Island that have historically tried to restrict public access.)
But 24-hour beach access, as the DEP's 2007 rules required? That was absurd. It attempted to fix a problem that didn't exist and created a public-safety nightmare for towns.
Even more ridiculous was the requirement that privately owned marinas provide 24-hour public access to their property. It is difficult to imagine what the DEP was thinking at the time.
The public-access beach rules have been in limbo since the 2008 ruling striking them down in a suit brought by Avalon and Stone Harbor. This week the DEP, under a new administration, proposed far more sensible regulations that would, as the appellate court insisted, allow towns to set their own access hours to the beachfront.
Under the new proposal, towns would still have to provide a reasonable number of access points, parking spots and bathrooms but could develop those policies themselves, taking cost and public safety into account. Private marinas would no longer have to provide 24-hour access to the water. New commercial facilities on the water would still have to provide some public access - or contribute to a public-access fund. Facilities being renovated would have to provide access only if they previously provided it.
The proposed rules, which still must go through public hearings, represent a reasonable compromise that should head off any attempts by the Legislature to further restrict the DEP's authority in this area.
And that's important. The DEP lost a lot of political capital because of this fight. Its absurd 2007 access rules contributed to the image of the DEP as an arrogant, overreaching bureaucracy and fueled a Republican-led backlash that could have lasting ramifications for environmental protection in New Jersey.
Hopefully, the DEP has learned its lesson.