Public Access Bill Update

By John Toth
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association July 2019 Newsletter)

With the urging of many fishing and environmental organizations, Governor Murphy signed the Public Beach Access Bill on May 3, 2019. This law becomes effective on July 3, 2019.

The Public Access bill codifies the Public Trust Doctrine into law. This Doctrine states that the tidal waters are held in trust by our State for the benefit of the public. The bill confirms the public’s longstanding right to use our state’s tidal waters and its adjacent shorelines. It also provides direction to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) on how to protect and enhance public access when permitting development and approving publicly funded projects. The NJDEP is now directed to make all tidal waters and their shorelines available to the public and remove physical and other impediments that limit this access.

The passage of this bill was the culmination of a long struggle that began in 2015. The Hackensack Riverkeeper won an appeal of the NJ DEP’s Public Access Proposal since it would have stripped back protections of the Public Trust Doctrine. Shortly after this appeal, Senator Bob Smith, head of the Senate’s Environmental and Energy Committee, convened a task force in 2016 to help our legislature develop provisions for a new Public Trust Doctrine that would codify and strengthen our state’s obligations to provide public access to its beaches and waterways. This task force was comprised of various organizations and led by the American Littoral Society and the NY/NJ Baykeeper. Approximately 40 to 50 people attended these task force meetings that were held in Trenton. I attended three of them and I can attest that these meetings sometimes became heated with individuals advancing their special interests that collided with the interests of other organizations. After a number of meetings and hearings with Senator Bob Smith, language for this bill (A) 4221 and (S) 1074 was finally developed and acceptable for passage by our legislature during March of this year and passed on to the Governor for his signature.

In the past, municipalities have restricted public access with restrictive parking measures, vacating street ends and non-maintenance of necessary dune/bulkhead walkways that are needed to access the water’s edge. In short, many municipalities passed ordinances with the focus of keeping anglers off “their” beaches. This type of mindset will be a challenge to change even with this new access law in place.

A meeting was held on June 14th at the American Littoral Society’s office in Sandy Hook and chaired by Tim Dillingham with representatives from various fishing and environmental organizations. The purpose of this meeting was to unite members of these organizations into a new coalition to ensure that provisions of this new bill are properly managed and enforced by the NJDEP. This will not be an easy task. I represented the JCAA, New Jersey Outdoor Alliance (NJOA) and the Salt Water Anglers of Bergen County. This meeting started at 10:00 a.m. and ended at noon. The following are some of the major points that were raised at this meeting:

Tim Dillingham agreed to develop a summary of this meeting with input from the coalition members. When this summary is completed, he will send it to NJDEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe for her review and discussion.

This new law for public access will not make changes overnight to the restrictive measures anglers have endured for many years blocking their access or limiting access to beaches. However, I do believe in time we will see better public access to our beaches and waterways. I will keep you updated as changes occur.

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