TRENTON – The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will create reasonable new rules on public access to the state’s tidal waters, which include the ocean and rivers, with the goal of enhancing access while eliminating burdensome and costly access rules for local governments, businesses and property owners, Commissioner Bob Martin announced Tuesday.
Proposed changes would end unreasonable mandates for cities and towns, and some commercial establishments and private property owners who now must provide parking, restroom facilities and, in some cases, 24/7 access to beaches and waterways. Those rules would be replaced by reasonable access requirements that recognize local conditions and costs.
“We want a policy in place that works for everyone, that allows ample and easy access to our waters while removing onerous burdens on businesses and property owners,” said Martin. “We are taking a common sense approach on public access.”
“Cities and towns know best how to plan for their own needs,” said Martin. “The DEP will ensure that certain standards are met, but local governments already are involved in land use planning — both in creating master plans and adopting zoning regulations — and they understand their communities better than regulatory agencies in Trenton.”
In coming months, the DEP will work with municipalities across the state to craft access plans that make local sense and protect the rights and needs of residents and businesses, rather than impose state-dictated access rules. The DEP, however, still must approve any municipal access plans.
While a long-term, comprehensive policy on access will be developed through the normal regulatory and legislative process, the commissioner did announced three immediate rules changes to be implemented by DEP. Public access will not be required for waterfront dredging activities, developments at existing port facilities, and any existing facility prohibited by federal law from providing public access because of homeland security concerns. These changes mostly would affect inner harbors in urban areas.
All proposed and immediate changes have come after a series of stakeholder meetings with residents, environmental and business groups, and local elected leaders. The DEP is continuing that dialogue with stakeholders, with a goal of moving forward with the regulatory adoption process in July.
The DEP in 2007 adopted expansive regulations essentially requiring all property owners along ocean and tidal waters to provide on-site public access or to pay for off-site public access to the waters. The top-down regulations left cities and towns out of the planning process, and proved to be too costly and unwieldy with little public benefit.
Opponents challenged the 2007 regulations, contending they harmed economic growth and imposed unnecessary burdens and costs on them. The courts subsequently struck down various provisions and questioned the legal underpinning of the access policy and DEP’s authority to implement those regulations.
Some of the public access changes to be proposed by the DEP this summer include:
* The DEP would allow cities and towns to develop their own, individual public access plans.
* Existing facilities that are expanding, rehabilitating or otherwise improving would not be obligated to provide public access. The only exceptions would be in cases of existing public access points that would be impacted by the new development.
* New facilities along tidal waters would be mandated to provide public access if they prevent the public from having direct access to the water and use of the upland, or the owners could be directed to contribute to a public access fund.
* Existing facilities with homeland security concerns would be exempt from providing public access.
* Single or two-family homes and small commercial developments would be exempt from public access rules.
* Commercial marinas would be required to provide “reasonable” public access, but would no longer need to offer access on a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a week basis. Private marinas may have similar requirements but there should be consideration that these boat slips are in front of private property.
* Oceanfront municipalities would be required to provide reasonable access point to the beach and reasonable parking opportunities for visitors.
* All municipalities’ access hours and parking would be addressed primarily by municipal access plans, with access to be reasonable and recognize issues such as public safety and cost.
* There will be no changes to current rules regarding the Hudson River Walkway.
The Sierra Club believes that the proposed public access rules are a compromise that tries to balance competing interest while still allowing public access to New Jersey’s waterways.
“Given all the attacks against the beach access rules, these rules will still provide for public access for the people of New Jersey,” said Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club Director.
“This is a compromise that we believe we can work with to expand beach access along New Jersey’s waterways. These rules are not perfect, but they are better than the alternative,” Tittel said.
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