The state has regained the authority to require public access to beaches and waterfront areas, but where and for what purpose remains subject to considerable debate. It is an issue high on legislative priorities in the wake of a state appeals court that briefly quashed the Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to mandate access through its coastal protection and waterfront permits. That was quickly rectified in a bipartisan bill that sailed through the lame-duck Legislature earlier this month. But it left unanswered the tougher question of how extensive that access should be. The legislation signed into law last week essentially restores rules put in place by the DEP in 2012 governing beach and waterfront access. But those regulations were opposed by conservationists — so much so that it led to the court challenge that wound up being decided by the appellate panel. The details of how that program should work were left to the new legislative session. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the influential chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, quickly took up the issue at the first meeting of the New Year.
Using a strategy he adopted to draw up proposals to revamp some of the state’s energy policies, Smith is convening a special stakeholders group to come back to the committee in 90 days with recommendations to lawmakers on what they should do. The composition of the group is yet to be determined, but Smith selected four chairpersons to try and forge a consensus — two from the business community and two from conservation groups. Environmentalist dislike the current regulatory scheme because they say it reduces access to beach and waterfront areas, but business interests fear the process may end up giving the public access to areas that should be restricted because of concerns dealing with New Jersey’s sensitive infrastructure, such as oil refineries and tank farms. Forging a consensus on those issues is likely to be challenging, both sides agree.
For instance, Mike Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and one of the four chairman tapped by Smith, noted he pushed for an amendment in the recent bill that allowed public access to the waterfront where it “is feasible and appropriate’’ to address security concerns. On the other hand, Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society and another co-chairman of the stakeholder group, said there are still significant parts of the coast and tidal areas where public access is limited. “We want them to be opened up in a meaningful way,’’ he said, talking about an area that would range from the Hudson River in the north, all the way down the coast to Delaware Bay and up the Delaware River. Some skeptics already have suggested to Smith it is unlikely the group will come up with consensus recommendations. Smith remained optimistic, but urged the members to come up with majority and minority reports in areas in which an accord could not be reached.