Public Access

by George Brown, JCAA Access Chairman
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association February 2020 Newsletter)

This is going to be a long column. There is a lot to report on this month.

Since New Jersey Public Law 2019, Chapter 81 (public access law) was signed into law in May of 2019, there have been multiple meetings in Trenton between DEP and various stakeholder groups.

As anglers we are one of the stakeholder groups. Both John Toth and I have represented JCAA at every meeting we have been invited to beginning with the first meeting in July 2019. Last Friday, January 10, 2020 was the latest public access stakeholder meeting I attended. Then on Wednesday, January 15th, John and I attended a Coastal Management Plan (CMP) 309 Stakeholder meeting at Monmouth University.

The public access law meetings and the CMP 309 meeting are for different purposes, but public access was an issue at both meetings. The Coastal Management Plan is required by federal law and must be updated every five years. Input from the 309 meeting is used to create an updated CMP for New Jersey and is then submitted to NOAA for approval. A draft plan is submitted first (this time by May 1, 2020) with the final document to be submitted by September 1, 2020. The public access law meetings were for the DEP to get stakeholder input that can be used to write new regulations required by NJ P.L 2019, Chapter 81.

At the 309 meeting four high priority issues were identified as needing to be updated. The high priority issues are Coastal Hazards, Wetlands, Ocean Resources, and Public Access. A CMP, once approved by NOAA, then defines how the state will manage each of those issues for the next five years. For JCAA and other beach users to be part of this assessment process is critically important to our rights to fish, crab, swim, dive, kayak and otherwise use these tidal waters (streams, rivers, bays, AND the ocean). Yes, we are aware of the need to mitigate coastal hazards and protect wetlands and ocean resources. Those are all vital to healthy water ecosystems and we need to make sure that the public is supportive of efforts to provide that protection. If, however, we are told that we are blocked from fishing the shoreline or that we are required to have a beach badge to fish anywhere in a particular town, why would we support using state or federal taxpayer dollars to fix an eroding shoreline or replenish their beach? That is what makes public access in the CMP so critical. Without adequate public access, the public may resent being kept out and not support those projects. When we are not allowed to see and use an area that should be open to the public, we have no identification with the area and cannot appreciate the value of that place. Think of your favorite place to fish and how youíd fight to preserve and protect it. But stop me from using my favorite place and make exclusive, the logic becomes, you want me to pay for it, but you donít want me to use it. Then pay for it yourself. That logic can cause a lot of damage and just reemphasizes how adequate public access is as critical to protect our tidal resources as any other thing we can do.

At every public access law meeting John and I have attended, we have tried, without luck, to get DEP to change the regulations and ensure public access. DEP has told us that they cannot use regulations to improve access, but we donít agree and have shown them instances that are so egregious that action must be taken by the state. We have also pointed out where we think court decisions support our definition of adequate public access. DEP has also been asked to improve enforcement of the public access laws. Right now, if you file a public access complaint, DEP will assign the complaint to a case manager who investigates the complaint. If you provide contact information with the complaint, the case manager may call you for clarification on some of the information, but they are not required to contact you. When the complaint is resolved, DEP is not required to follow up to let you know what the outcome of your complaint was. That needs to change. If you take the time to file a complaint, and provide your contact information, you should know what the resolution was. If it was a public access violation and you are permitted to use that access point, you need to know that. If a violation did not occur and the area is not accessible to the public, you need to know that as well, so you do not get a ticket for trespassing.

What defines adequate public access for fishing? In all the meetings John and I have attended, we have emphasized that fishing should be permitted 24/7. That people still fish to put food on their dinner table and that charging a badge fee to simply fish is discriminatory. We have worked with other beach user groups to create baseline requirements for public access. Here is the baseline we feel is appropriate.

Baseline Requirements for Public Access

Public access is defined to include visual and physical access to, and use of, tidal waters and adjacent shorelines, including but not limited to:

Nourished and renourished beaches, which constitute property of the State of New Jersey, and other tidal shores not governed by N.J.S.A. 40:61-22.20 shall be open to the public and usable twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Access may not be unreasonably withheld.

That is adequate public access. Itís time to define real public access and have it enforced. All we want is equal access to all tidal waters. It shouldnít vary from town to town. We want one set of rules that apply equally. It is going to take time and effort to improve access, but we can only get it if we work on public access. At some point you may be asked to do your part by writing or calling legislators or the governor. We know what we want, and we want to make it enforceable. We will continue working with other beach users to change DEPís belief that they cannot improve access by regulation. We may have to go for a new legislation, but we arenít giving up or going away.

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