MANTOLOKING, N.J. – New Jersey lawmakers are reaching back to the Roman empire in their latest effort to guarantee public access to the shoreline and end some shore towns’ long history of trying to keep outsiders off their beaches.
State lawmakers have introduced a new beach access bill that writes the Public Trust Doctrine into law and directs the state Department of Environmental Protection to apply it to coastal land use and funding decisions.
The doctrine is a legal concept dating to the time of the Emperor Justinian stating that oceans, bays and rivers are held in a trust for the public, which has the right to swim in them, or sit or walk along their shores.
Though it has been cited in several groundbreaking court cases involving beach access over the decades, the doctrine has been open to differing interpretations. The current bill actually incorporates the doctrine into state law, something environmentalists have wanted for years.
“It’s a very strong guarantee of the right of the public to access beaches and waterways,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.
But the bill to be heard Monday in a state Senate committee does not restore coast-wide standards for how closely public access points should be located along the shore. Under the administration of former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, there had to be public access points every quarter-mile.
Those standards were struck down in a court decision as too intrusive for local governments and marina owners. Corzine’s successor, Republican Chris Christie, largely left it to individual shore towns to decide what level of access was right for them.
Despite most of the beaches receiving taxpayer money to widen and maintain them, some shore towns have used a variety of tactics to discourage outsiders from coming to their shores. This included charging as much as $12 to use the beach for a single day, severely restricted or nonexistent parking near the beach; the lack of restrooms and showers; a ban on food and drinks on the beach, and physical barriers preventing the public from reaching the sand.
Bay Head had to be sued in order to end its 1980s policy of only selling beach badges to borough residents. And Mantoloking only last year dropped its rules limiting on-street parking on most streets to two hours when forced to by the federal government, which is spending millions of dollars to restore the borough’s beaches that were devastated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
A clause in the bill that defines public access also says it includes public parking and restrooms. The bill also requires more of marinas, including allowing the public onto a beach that is part of marina property.
The business community got one of its main wishes in the bill through a clause that exempts critical infrastructure, like waterfront chemical or nuclear power plants, from public access requirements.
“I don’t think anyone thinks it’s a good idea to let someone paddle their canoe right up to the Salem nuclear power plant,” said Michael Egenton, vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “The bill recognizes that there are critical homeland security facilities that should not be trespassed on.”
The bill also leaves a sizeable loophole in a proposal that local towns incorporate public waterway access into their master plans, requiring it only “where appropriate.”
Frank Marshall, an attorney with the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said some towns oppose heavy state involvement in local coastal decisions.
“It’s so localized that you can’t have a set number” of access points, he said. “To set a hard and fast standard is too difficult.”