New Jersey considers codifying public’s right to access beaches, waterfronts

Vacationers take to the beach at Cape May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Vacationers take to the beach at Cape May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey lawmakers held a hearing in Toms River Thursday concerning legislation that would ensure public access to beaches and waterfronts.

The measure would address a chronic problem, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal protection advocacy group.

“All up and down the coast, municipalities are acting to block fishermen and surfers from getting to the water,” he said. “There are restrictive parking ordinances in place, developers are not providing beach access, and the public is spending millions of dollars on beach nourishment projects, which aren’t providing any parking and access ways to get to those new beaches.”

Ray Cantor, chief adviser to the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the bill not only puts the doctrine upholding the right of public access into law, it expands it.

“We believe this is going to require single-family homeowners who are either building a new house or even putting out a bulkhead in their back yard or a shed in the back and have to come to us for a permit, they will now have to provide public access across their areas,” he said.

Melissa Danko, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, said marina owners worry they’d be hurt by expanding public access.

“They need to be able to reasonably control and manage their properties,” she said. “These are very small business owners on a small footprint in most places throughout the state. Issues related to 24/7 unlimited access or restrictions on expanded facilities have the potential to be disastrous to our industry.”

Senate Environment Committee Chairman Bob Smith said there could be reasonable exemptions to the access requirements.

“If you’re just building a bulkhead, really, that should not trigger beach access,” said Smith, D-Middlesex. “On the other hand, if you’re building 100,000 square feet of new building, maybe that should.”

Smith promised more hearings on the legislation that he believes will be passed by the Legislature and on the governor’s desk for consideration by late fall or early spring.

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