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Critics: Access to Two Rivers, Ocean Threatened by New DEP Proposal

Good or bad? State DEP's new rules would give municipalities more control over public access points to rivers, bays and beaches.

It's an ongoing issue that affects all shore areas: from the Bayshore of Middletown to Sandy Hook and all the way down south on the seaside. It's all about beach access. The issue has been riddled with controversy for some years.

Now it's being weighed in public again. Do the new state edicts on the subject make things easier on residents or visitors? Are the new rules a developer's or Joe Q. Public's dream? Patch offers a look at the issue with a peak into a recent meeting calling for public comment.

The state Department of Environmental Protection held a forum in Jersey City last week giving the public a chance to sound off on proposed changes to rules governing waterfront access, which would impact the Hudson River and Newark Bay as well as the Jersey Shore.

Under the revision, New Jersey municipalities would come up with their own plans for how access is provided, subject to DEP approval, and weaken the agency’s oversight.

Some locals fretted about the implications for access to the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, since the new rules contain a provision that 24/7 access could be restricted in some waterfront areas. Helen Manogue of the Hoboken Quality of Life Coalition and the Hudson River Waterfront Conservancy spoke of the local battle for waterfront access that dates back to the 1970s: "We’ve learned how to deal with industry, we’ve learned how to deal with the condominium associations … Now [the walkway is] just like having a street in Hoboken that runs in front of your house."

Dozens of other residents and open-space activists from throughout the state gathered at a historic railroad terminal in Liberty State Park for the meeting to protest the Christie administration’s proposed changes. Several said they didn’t believe municipalities should be entrusted with determining waterfront access, expressing concern that local governments could be swayed by deep-pocketed developers and outspoken residents who don’t want public walkways near their property.

Others described the issue as an environmental justice imperative, saying that waterfront access for low-income residents is at stake.

According to Ray Cantor, chief advisor to N.J. DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, who represented the agency, the onus behind the change is to provide public access “in a more effective and efficient manner” instead of applying one set of regulations across the state.

He also said the agency was compelled to make the change based on an appellate court ruling that the DEP didn’t have the authority to guarantee 24-hour beach access, parking or restrooms in the Jersey Shore town of Avalon.

Many speakers disputed Cantor’s contention that the revised rules would lead to more public access points by giving locals more control, noting that it's often the residents of beach towns who are most fiercely against providing access there.

"Now those wolves will be in charge of the henhouse," said Chris Len, a staff attorney for NY/NJ Baykeeper and Hackensack Riverkeeper.

Others observed that a Corzine-era rule currently compels waterfront developers to either provide access or contribute to a fund designated for creating access points in other locations if it’s not feasible near their project site.

“You take away that requirement and industry would be more than happy to walk away from that responsibility,” said Captain Bill Sheehan of the Hackensack Riverkeeper.

Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise urged the DEP to continue requiring developers to provide public access points and not make municipalities “go it alone.” He said the guarantee of waterfront access helped make redevelopment in downtown Jersey City in the 1990s possible, since it made the tax incentives attached more acceptable to residents. “You didn’t need to work for a trading firm or live in a $1 million condo to fish in the river,” he said.

Gil Hawkins of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, who is a councilman in Leonia, said that coming up with a waterfront plan isn’t feasible for many cash-strapped municipalities that need to stick to a 2 percent property tax cap in their budgeting.

According to Cantor, the 24/7 access restrictions would only apply to specific areas where local police have highlighted security risks at night, and not to heavily-trafficked areas of the Hudson River walkway.

Public comment on the proposed rules is being accepted through June 3; the DEP will make its decision after that date. Three additional public hearings will be held in Jersey Shore towns before then; written comment can be submitted to:

Gary Brower, Esq., ATTN: DEP Docket No. 05-11-03

Office of Legal Affairs, 401 E. State St., 4th Floor

PO Box 402, Trenton, NJ 08625

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