TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey lawmakers are moving ahead with a law guaranteeing the public’s right to access beaches and riverfronts, but hard decisions remain to be made on an issue that has roiled the waters — and the courts — for decades.
A state Senate committee on Monday released a bill that writes the Public Trust Doctrine into law and directs the state Department of Environmental Protection to apply it to coastal land use and funding decisions.
The doctrine is a legal concept dating to the Roman Emperor Justinian stating that oceans, bays and rivers are held in a trust for the public, which has the right to swim in them, or sit or walk along their shores.
It exempts critical infrastructure like chemical or nuclear plants, and does not specify how far apart public access points must be.
It also leaves a large loophole regarding a requirement that coastal towns include a beach access element in their municipal master plans, saying that would be required only “where appropriate.”
Sen. Bob Smith, a Middlesex County Democrat, said decisions on remaining points of contention will be made in a future bill, adding that the one currently under consideration was intended to represent a consensus between environmental and business groups.
“The hard task comes next,” Smith said.
Smith said that includes requirements for restrooms and parking near the coast, and how much local governments would be required to pay for them.
The bill applies not only to beach areas, but to riverfront areas in the northern part of the state such as the Hudson River where rampant development has walled off large sections of the waterfront.
Some beach access advocates also called for the restoration of a state Public Advocate to represent the public’s right to access beaches and to bring litigation where necessary to enforce it. The state eliminated such a position about a decade ago.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, praised the enshrining of the Public Trist Doctrine into law, but added much more remains to be done to ensure true coastal access.
“The family of five running around trying to find a parking space in Seaside Heights and they find there’s no bathrooms, that’s the real face of beach access in New Jersey,” he said.
The committee amended the bill Monday to require that any areas exempted on homeland security grounds provide access nearby “to the greatest extent possible.”
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