New Jersey governor signs law protecting public beach access

Phil Murphy signed the bill Friday, which codifies in law the state's public trust doctrine — meaning that waterways including the ocean, bays and rivers, are common property.

Ocean City, New Jersey

Ocean City, New Jersey (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

New Jersey’s governor signed a law Friday intended to protect the public’s right to reach the beach in a state where some shore towns have employed a wide variety of tactics to discourage outsiders from sitting on or even walking across their sand.

But not everyone is convinced the new law will actually change that.

Democrat Phil Murphy signed the bill Friday, which codifies in law the state’s public trust doctrine — meaning that waterways including the ocean, bays and rivers, are common property held in trust by the state for the use of all people. The public trust concept dates back to the Roman Empire.

It has been at the heart of decades of battles between access advocates, government and private property owners in a state where demand for access to the water remains high, but so do physical and legal obstacles.

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Some local communities have actively worked to discourage outsiders from using their beaches by restricting beach badge sales to residents-only (something that was struck down by the courts); drastically limiting public parking, prohibiting food on the beach, and refusing to provide public restrooms.

Among other things, the law signed Friday requires the doctrine to be applied to coastal development, protection and funding issues.

“New Jersey’s shoreline and coastal communities are some of our state’s greatest treasures,” Murphy said. “By strengthening the public’s right to access our beaches, we are ensuring that all New Jersey residents and visitors can enjoy our beautiful shore this summer and for generations to come.”

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, worked with business interests in developing the bill, which addressed and sometimes compromised on opposing aspects. For instance, the law exempts infrastructure sites critical to homeland security — such as chemical plants and oil or gasoline tank farms — from public access requirements on safety grounds.

Dillingham said he’s happy with the result, even if neither side got everything it wanted.

“This legislation was supported by almost every major conservation, fishing and surfing organization in the state, from beach advocates to defenders of access along urban waterways,” he said.

The NY/NJ Baykeeper, whose former executive director Debbie Mans is now New Jersey’s deputy environmental protection commissioner, praised the law for including urban waterways in the northern part of the state near New York City among spots where public access has been challenged and needs protection.

Waterways including the Hudson, Passaic, Raritan and other rivers are “where access to our waters is often inhibited by bulkheads and gated developments,” the group said in a statement.

The new law does not restore regulations enacted under former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, that required public access points every quarter-mile along the shoreline — those rules were overturned by a court.

Some beach access advocates feel the law signed by Murphy does not go far enough in ensuring the public’s rights. The Department of Environmental Protection under Corzine’s Republican successor, Chris Christie, left it to local communities to decide what level of public access was right.

“This bill does not move public access forward in any meaningful way,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It has vague language that could lead to a lot of lawsuits from towns that have fought public beach access for years. They want money for the beaches, paid for by the public. They just don’t want the public on those beaches.”

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