Fishermen, surfers and beach lovers gave a "thumbs down" to proposed changes in New Jersey's beach and waterfront access rules at a public hearing on Long Beach Island Thursday night.
More than 150 people packed the Long Beach Township courtroom and most of them seemed opposed to the state Department of Environmental Protection's proposal to give shore and waterfront towns more flexibility in meeting standards for public access.
"Don't let them take our rights away," Margaret O'Brien, who owns a bait and tackle shop on Long Beach Island, told the crowd facing the state hearing officer.
Historically, shorelines have belonged to everyone, and not to private property owners. Traditionally the public must have reasonable access to them.
Hundreds of New Jersey residents have packed four public hearings, the overwhelming majority of whom blasted the rules, saying they don't trust the state to fight for the public's right to reach the beach. They say giving more authority to local towns will let them side with wealthy oceanfront homeowners who want the public kept away from their homes.
The state rewrote its beach rules earlier this year after a court struck down old ones requiring access points every quarter-mile along the shore, as well as parking and bathrooms nearby.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the south Jersey beach town of Avalon that claimed the state overstepped its bounds by requiring too much public access, as well as unreasonable requirements such as 24-hour, round-the-clock access to beaches and marinas.
The new rules ask — but don't require — coastal towns to adopt a public access plan spelling out exactly where the public can get to the beach. For towns that balk, the state has several punishments it can mete out.
One is cutting the town off from funding to help municipalities buy and preserve open spaces. Another is ranking that town lower on the state's funding recommendation list for money to replenish beaches, which often erode through frequent use, storms and other natural processes. And a third is denying the town permits for beach and dune maintenance
The agency wants to work cooperatively with towns to guarantee beach access. But many fear that the state will let local governments make it more difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to use their beaches.
Joe Woerner, a surfer and member of the Surfrider Foundation, predicted that some of the local access plans adopted by municipalities will be challenged in court and said the state won't provide legal help.
"You will be fighting it yourself with your own tax dollars," he said.
David Brogan of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association praised the new rules for freeing businesses from costly public access requirements, saying the proposal "brings back sanity and common sense."
Several marina owners also praised the DEP for scrapping a requirement that their businesses provide 24/7 public access.
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