Riverkeepers sue N.J. over new rules for waterfronts

The NY/NJ Baykeeper and the Hackensack Riverkeeper say rules adopted by the DEP last month amount to a rollback of regulations aimed at ensuring urban communities have access to the state’s waterfronts.

The riverkeepers this week filed a lawsuit challenging the rules.

The controversy is the latest in a series of legal disputes between environmental groups and the DEP. Other environmental groups have contested new regulations that allow certain permit requirements to be waived if they impose an undue burden, among other factors.

The new rules adopted by the DEP lay out a framework for providing public access to beaches and waterways in 231 municipalities from the New York/New Jersey region, south along the entire coastline, and north again along Delaware Bay and tidal portions of the Delaware River.

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Environmental groups argue the new regulations exempt most public highway projects and industrial waterfront development from the public-access requirements and also weaken existing requirements to provide meaningful access in association with public funding for beach- replenishment projects.

“Anybody who has been to North Jersey can see that access to natural resources is limited,” said Debbie Mann, NY/NJ Baykeeper. “Urban residents’ right to access to tidal waters—a public resource—has been given away under this rule. The new rule shows utter disregard for urban communities’ need for access to nature.”

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna argued otherwise, saying the environmental groups misinterpreted the Public Trust Doctrine, which governs how natural resources should be managed.

“Nothing in this rule will diminish public access,” Hajna said. “Municipal leaders in both urban and coastal communities have praised these rules because it will increase coastal access.”

Those views echoed comments earlier this year by DEP Commissioner Bob Martin: “We have heard the suggestions and concerns expressed by many of our residents, during a very robust public comment period over the past year and have responded by making changes to the proposed rules, especially recognizing the needs of the fishing community in New Jersey.”

Critics argued otherwise.

“It is New Jersey’s responsibility under the Public Trust Doctrine to manage Public Trust resources (tidal waters and the shoreline) for the benefit of all citizens,” said Bill Sheehan, Hackensack Riverkeeper. “When DEP adopted its new rule, they, in effect, declared the state no longer has to uphold its duty. The DEP simply cannot do that.”

Christopher Len, staff attorney for both riverkeepers, agreed.

“The shore belongs equally to all New Jerseyans, but this rule would close access to many urban waters forever, and allow Shore towns to decide when—or even if—the rest of New Jersey ever gets to visit our public trust lands,” Len said.

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