Thursday, August 18, 2016

NJ Senate enviro panels to hear beach-access bill today

A simple walk along an ocean beach has been a basic right that can be traced back to old English law and the Roman Empire. But in New Jersey – between marinas, dune reconstruction, endangered species and homeland security sites – things get a little complicated.

The Record's John C. Ensslin reports:

That’s one reason why lawmakers plan to hold a hearing in Toms River Thursday on a beach access bill, the latest in a series of beach and shore related bills.

Lawmakers for years have tried to fix perennial shore issues by posting bills on beach replenishment and property easements as well as bills that would address beach fees charged by towns and shore protection funds. But many of those measures have met with limited success.

For example, a search of keywords “beach” or “shore” turned up 19 bills posted in the current session. All were carryovers from the last legislative session and none had a hearing so far. That list doesn’t include a ban on smoking on the beach, which passed the Legislature but was conditionally vetoed by Governor Christie.

Assemblyman David Wolfe, R-Ocean, said he was surprised to hear that other shore legislation had stalled. He noted that some significant bills such as increased “blue acres” funds for chronic flooding are meaningful to shore communities even if they are not labeled as “shore” legislation.

Wolfe also noted that lawmakers who represent shore communities tried to form their own caucus a few years ago. “But that kind of fizzled out,” he said.
The beach access bill - co-sponsored by Senators Bob Smith, D-Middlesex and Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset – may prove to be the exception when it gets a hearing before the joint environmental committees of the Senate and Assembly at the Toms River Town Hall.

No vote is planned Thursday on the measure, which does not address some of the more controversial issues involved in public access to beachfront, such as how and where to provide access ramps and restrooms, who pays for those improvements and what rules should apply to marinas.

Smith, chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee, said the beach access bill stems from an Appellate Court ruling in December that declared the Department of Environmental Protection had overstepped its authority in 2012 when it adopted a rule that gave more power to local municipalities to determine how to provide access.

“We have an Appellate Division...that had some difficulty in recognizing the public trust doctrine,” Smith said, referring to a concept that dates back to the Roman Empire and English Law.

That doctrine upheld the common law rights of the public to fish, hike and swim along the state’s tidal shorelines. Smith said the bill is an attempt to clarify the situation by explicitly putting that doctrine into state law.

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