Environmentalists fear reduced public access to beaches if new rule adopted

TRENTON – Environmentalists testified against a proposed beach access rule today, arguing it will weaken public access, harm tourism, and interfere with fishermen and other outdoor activities.

The Department of Environmental Protection, however, argued that the proposal – which affects the Department of Transportation – will ensure that DOT public road projects are not subject to requirements that are stricter than similar commercial development.

The proposal affects DOT road and bridge projects and the practice of affording the public access to beaches.  The proposal involves so-called “linear’’ transportation projects that extend for long distances and can often disrupt public access.

Both American Littoral Society Executive Director Tim Dillingham and N.J. Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said at the public hearing that they see this as part of the Christie administration’s policy of reducing public access to tidal waters.

The opponents testified today that they believe the change would eliminate any requirement for DOT to provide public access.

But Ray Cantor of DEP said that while DOT should not be exempt from such access provisions, neither should it be held to stricter rules than other projects of an industrial or commercial nature.

“This is bad policy, it is wrongheaded,” said Dillingham, adding that neither DOT nor the Turnpike Authority will be required to take a comprehensive look  or maintain a commitment to helping fishermen and others gain shore access.

And Tittel said DOT merely will have to come up with an access plan, but he argued there will be no true standards or penalties for noncompliance. He also argued that since projects in existing rights of way won’t necessitate a plan, DOT will simply purchase rights of way.

“The beaches belong to all of us,” Tittel said. “They are an important part of our heritage, an important part of the public trust doctrine.’’

But Cantor said the proposal actually encourages a “holistic” view of projects and access. “This rule does nothing that will take away that requirement,’’ he said, adding the rule is scheduled for adoption on Oct. 4.

Under the proposal, when a permit is issued to DOT that requires new or enhanced public access, DOT may provide funding for such access to either DEP or a municipality.

In addition, DEP will encourage transportation agencies and counties to seek DEP approval.

But the opponents maintained in their testimony that the so-called standards are essentially a step backward.

“We don’t believe the status quo is acceptable or adequate,” Dillingham said.

Environmentalists fear reduced public access to beaches if new rule adopted