Conflicting Views at DEP Beach Access Hearing
Beach access issue proves complex at publc hearing on rule changes
Local officials appeared in Seaside Heights Monday to show their support for waterfront-access rule changes proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection under the Christie administration.
Although critics say the rules would restrict access to local beaches, Brick Mayor Steve Acropolis and others believe the changes ultimately give them more input into the access planning process.
"I would much rather do it at our level," he said. "We are best able to identify the areas where public access would be appropriate."
A crowd of nearly 60 people, representing various stakeholders in the beach access fight, gathered in the municipal courtroom in Seaside Heights to voice their criticism or support of the state's proposal.
In a three-hour hearing, members of the state business community, access and environmental advocates and elected officials registered their opinions for consideration by the DEP before they eventually decide whether to adopt the rules by their June 4 deadline.
The state's comprehensive rules cover access to a multitude of waterfronts including beaches, rivers and back-bays as well as marinas and industrial areas.
While supporters of the rule changes touted them as a relaxed return to common sense, critics feel that relaxing access requirements and putting power in determining access in the hands of the municipalities will ultimately result in less meaningful access to the general public.
A number of elected officials from area municipalities came out to show their support for the proposed rule changes, which they feel would ultimately give them more input into the access planning process.
Mantoloking Mayor George Nebel, however, spoke in favor of the access rule changes.
"I think the DEP is doing exactly the right thing," he said.
Bay Head Mayor Bill Curtis was another of the local elected officials to speak in favor of the rule changes.
"We don't think we need any more access, but we are in favor of letting the towns have a say in this situation," he said.
"I think a little town like Waretown should be able to decide what is wrong and what is right for its little town," Joe Lachawiec, Mayor of Township of Ocean, said.
"I applaud the DEP's recognition that one size does not fit all," Jason Martucci, a Seaside Heights councilman, said.
Advocates from environmental, access and recreational groups spoke out against the proposed rule changes.
John Weber of the Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation explained that New Jersey's municipalities have a poor track record when it comes to providing access.
"If you look at the case law, it reads like a who's who of inaccessible beaches," he said.
"The subsequent, more stringent rule was designed to close the loopholes that perpetuated access challenges," said Ralph Coscia of Citizen's Right to Access Beaches.
Paul Harris, president of the New Jersey Beach Buggy Association, felt that the rule changes represented a violation of New Jersey's Public Trust Doctrine.
"The rich man is dancing, and the poor man is paying the band," he said.
"The one thing we all have here is distrust of state government," Tom Fote of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association said. "We have a problem trusting the municipalities to do what's best for all of the public."
Proposed rule changes would also eliminate a requirement in the existing rules which provides a mechanism by which businesses in areas where access is not safe or practical can make a contribution for access projects in other areas.
"Existing industrial facilities should not be treated the same as sandy bathing beaches," David Brogan, first vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said.
Brogan lauded the proposed rule changes as a return to "sanity and common sense."
Michael Egenton of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce addressed liability concerns for industrial business owners.
"We need to determine what reasonable access is," he said.
Mayor Richard J. Gerbounka of the City of Linden stressed that different municipalities have different needs and that mandates in the current rules don't address those differences.
"Not everywhere in New Jersey has pristine beaches that can be used by the public," he said, noting Linden's highly industrialized waterfront. "That's why it's so important that municipalities have input."
"We have to realize, as the old saying goes, one size does not fit all," he added.
"There is nothing in the existing rule that forces this access," Elizabeth Grubman of the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper said. "Businesses can provide a financial contribution to provide off-site access."
"The proposed rule has absolutely no mechanism for providing urban waterfront access," she explained, noting that regional contributions have helped to provide walkways and and other accesses in urban or industrialized areas.
Marinas represented a different aspect of the access debate.
"Marinas by their very nature already provide public access," Melissa Danko, Executive Director of the Marine Trade Association of New Jersey, said calling the proposed rule changes a "return to common sense."
"It's important to realize that there are hundreds of marinas up and down the coast that provide access to thousands of boaters," Jim Cerruti, owner of Fair Haven Yachtworks said.