Given New Jersey’s varied Shore communities and the recession-driven stresses being felt on town finances, it may make sense for Gov. Christie to scale back the one-size-fits-all approach to promoting public access to the state’s beaches.
The test will be whether relaxing rules on beach access is seized upon by Shore towns and property owners to post the equivalent of more “private beach” signs.
For now, proposed new beach-access rules are receiving good reviews from municipal officials and at least tentative acceptance by the state’s Sierra Club chapter. Under the changes, the Department of Environmental Protection will permit individual towns a greater say in how they preserve and enhance public access.
A 60-day public comment period on the rules begins Wednesday.
As described by DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, the twin goals are to assure “ample and easy access to our waters while removing onerous burdens on businesses and property owners.” If that merely proves to be conservative Republican code for less government regulation, then citizens’ rightful access to the state’s beaches could be eroded.
That said, Christie essentially had to try a different approach to beach-access issues from the one adopted in 2007 by the Corzine administration. That’s because two beach towns — Avalon and Stone Harbor — won a court decision that pretty much gutted the state’s enforcement powers.
Under Corzine, the rules called for towns to provide 24-hour beach access to qualify for state funds for sand-replenishment work, and also to add public parking, restrooms, and beach paths. The provision created an added cost on the local towns in the middle of a deep recession.
The rules also failed to address the wide disparity of access issues from one beach town to another. Now, at least, beach community officials will have a chance to prove that they’re best suited to tailoring workable public-access plans for their own towns.
For its part, the DEP will need to demonstrate that beach access has been improved despite relaxing the rules. It’s a matter of balance.
That said, it will be more important than ever that citizen groups that have waged beach-access battles continue as vigilant watchdogs.