|Beach restoration project at the Jersey Shore - NJ Advance Media|
It is not often that the Democrat-controlled New Jersey Legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Christie's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) work harmoniously (and expeditiously) to address an environmental issue, but Jersey beaches are special.
On Thursday, none other than the DEP's top dog, Bob Martin, was appearing before the Senate Environment Committee, asking for immediate action on just-introduced legislation that would restore DEP public beach access rules that had been invalidated by a state appeals court. The regulatory void is of particular concern since it may jeopardize federal funding for ongoing and time-sensitive, beach restoration projects.
The legislature is responding by fast-tracking a bill to fix the problem. Following the commissioner's testimony, the committee released S-3321. The measure is expected to receive Senate and Assembly approval on Monday (at the Legislature’s final voting session of the current term) and be sent to Gov. Christie for his signature.
Historically, the DEP Commissioner, assistant commissioners, or department liaisons made frequent appearances before the Senate and Assembly environmental committees to argue their positions on a wide variety of bills. That all came to a screeching halt when Christie became governor.
Since then, the committees have been treated as irrelevant if not nonexistent by the DEP and the front office. The obvious but never-admitted cold shoulder often leaves Senate committee chairman Bob Smith to publicly bemoan: "Where's the DEP on this bill? We'd sure like to know. Can someone ask them to call or send a letter?"
Following the committee action, the Associated Press's Wayne Parry reported:
Martin said after the hearing that passage of the law would reinstate the same rules that were in place before the court struck them down. Those rules were hotly contested by environmental and coastal access groups who complained that they did not go far enough to protect the public's right to reach the water.
The rules leave it up to individual municipalities to decide what level of public access is suitable. Rules generated by former governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, imposed uniform access requirements along the shoreline, including access points every quarter mile.
When Republican Gov. Chris Christie succeeded Corzine, the DEP rewrote the rules to give communities more latitude in granting beach access. Martin said those rules will remain the same, at least for now.
"We're happy with the rules we have in place," he said. "They've worked extremely well."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disagreed, saying the DEP could do far more to enforce the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal concept dating to the Roman Empire holding that the state's waterways are owned by and reserved for the use of the public.
"By rolling back beach access protections, the Christie administration actually got rid of protections," he said. "Their bad rules were struck down by the court, and now we have none in place. Now we need the legislature to fix that and come up with standards that will ensure the Public Trust Doctrine gets implemented."
Sen. Smith said he expects to appoint a committee later this year to consider changes to the state's beach access rules. But he said that would not happen under the current bill.
Bill to give DEP authority over waterfront access clears committee
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