Northeast
New legislation that would address public access issues to New Jersey's beaches and rivers is awaiting a signature from Gov. Phil Murphy. Above is a view of Mantoloking Borough. (Andy Mills | NJ Advance Media)

OPINION: Everyone, even ‘outsiders,’ should be able to enjoy our beautiful beaches, rivers

Spring is here. For millions of folks in the Garden State that’s their cue to fast forward to plans for boating, beaches, fishing and waterfront strolls.

For too many, those shoreside fantasies bump up against crowded beaches, difficult (and expensive) parking, and too few paths to the water. It's a problem that shows up in communities across New Jersey: from the state's great beaches to its historic river cities.

The fundamental problem is two-fold. In some places there have been active efforts to assert that beaches and waterfronts are essentially owned by those with adjacent property and anyone else on them is trespassing. In other places, there are passive measures designed to keep away “outsiders,” including restrictive or non-existent parking, a lack of easily accessible paths to the water, or an absence of “infrastructure” such as public restrooms, boat ramps or waterfront parks. Then, there is the wall of development with no public access to the water’s edge.

However, the Public Trust Doctrine - a legal concept extending back to Roman times and carried forward to present day by New Jersey's highest courts - says that areas "flowed by the tides" are public in nature and cannot be kept from them. It places these areas in trust, to be protected by the State.

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New legislation (S1074/A4221), sponsored by senators Bob Smith and Kip Bateman and Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, which recently received near unanimous approval from the New Jersey legislature and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Phil Murphy, provides tools and policies to address many of these public access problems.

Promoting and protecting public access to tidal waters and waterfronts should be high on the Murphy Administration's environmental policy agenda. Public access to the water supports a wide range of recreational pursuits, is a fundamental part of our lives here in the Garden State and is increasingly the foundation of economic revitalization as our waterfronts reinvent themselves from their industrial past.

The state, in its role of trustee of lands subject to the public trust doctrine, has a duty to protect and preserve the public’s rights. Although deriving from long standing law, this duty remains extremely important as the public demand and need for waterfront access continues to increase.

Yet today, not all waterfront areas are accessible, and many communities, user groups, and the general public often have inadequate and unequal access. It is another front in the fight for a fairer New Jersey, as inland tax payers support rebuilt beaches along the shore, but have to pay increasing fees and often fight for meaningful access to what their money made possible.

This legislation would confirm, in statute, the longstanding and inviolable public rights under the public trust doctrine to use and enjoy the state’s tidal waters and adjacent shorelines. It would provide clear direction to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on how to create, protect and enhance public access when permitting development and approving publicly funded projects. It would clearly empower and articulate that the state has the authority and duty to protect the public’s interests.

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