File / Kevin R. Wexler / staff photographer
Providing free or affordable parking within walking distance is a key goal of a group studying ways to improve beach access.
MANTOLOKING — Providing free or affordable parking within walking distance of the shoreline is a key goal of a group studying ways to improve access to New Jersey’s beaches and waterways.
A task force appointed by a state Senate committee filed its recommendations late Tuesday night. They include ensuring fishing access during off hours and increasing the public’s ability to get to the water from street ends.
The panel, split between environmental and business interests, disagrees on many of the recommendations, including whether businesses exempted from providing access at their sites for safety or security reasons should have to pay to provide public access nearby.
“Generally, parking on free or reasonable terms should be available within a reasonable walking distance of the beach,” the task force wrote. “Parking should be sufficient to accommodate the peak hour demand or the beach capacity of the project. These policies should be required for all projects using public money, in addition to those projects with federal support.”
New Jersey has been fighting over access to its shoreline for decades. Some shore municipalities have long sought to discourage outsiders from using their beaches by restricting access points, severely limiting parking near the beach, and not providing public restrooms, with the practical effect being that the beaches are virtually impossible to use for anyone who does not already live close by.
New Jersey’s beach access policies are based on the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal concept dating back to the Roman Empire that decrees that the state’s tidal waters are held in a trust for the use of all its residents.
The ability to get to a waterway from a public street or sidewalk is another concern. The task force could not agree on whether state law should be changed to prevent towns from vacating streets that end near waterways and transferring them to private owners without explicitly determining that the access point is not needed for the public to reach the shoreline.
Business groups also want relief from numerous permit requirements and fees regarding public access requirements. A request for hardship exemptions from providing public access also divided the panel.
Nor could the panel agree on whether public access to the water should be available around the clock. Environmentalists say 24-hour access would prevent communities from using arbitrary time restrictions to exclude non-residents, but business groups say it would increase conflicts with private property owners and further burden police.
The panel also discussed at length a proposal to require public access at any project on which public money is spent or any project requiring a coastal development permit, but could not agree; business groups worried it would increase costs.
Sen. Bob Smith said a new beach access bill should be written by the fall.
A court struck down the old rules last December. The Legislature hastily passed a bill giving the state Department of Environmental Protection the authority to regulate beach access, but did not enact new access standards.