New beach access rules will let seaside towns propose their own plans for accommodating the public with parking and restrooms, and state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin says his agency is already in discussions with “challenging” towns where public access has been a problem.
“There will be no loss or reduction of current access now,” Martin promised in a briefing with reporters on the new rules, which are to be published today in the state Register.
Echoing a common theme of the Christie administration, Martin said the agency is proposing “commonsense rules for improving and enhancing access,” and allowing towns to put forward plans they can “tailor to their own particular geography and needs.”
For Mantoloking, that means borough officials and the DEP are in discussions about changing the two-hour street parking limit that draws complaints from visitors, said Ray Cantor, an advisor to Martin.
Long Beach Township is offering an alternative to the DEP’s long-sought goal of getting additional public access easements along private lanes in exclusive Loveladies and North Beach on the northern half of Long Beach Island.
“In place of adding more access there, we’re proposing to expand Bayview Park” in the township’s central Brant Beach section, said Mayor Joseph Mancini. The township plans to spend up to $1.5 million for 100 new parking spaces in a clamshell lot, food kiosks, restrooms and showers, he said.
A crosswalk and traffic signal lets Bayview patrons cross to the ocean beach by the municipal building. The improvements will make Brant Beach a better destination than Loveladies, where “if you want a soda you’ve got to get in a car and drive three miles,” Mancini said. “There’s no commercial district there.”
Beach access and environmental groups anticipated much of the package but are not happy about it, said John Weber of the Surfrider Foundation.
“There’s some stuff that sounds good, but it’s not in the rule,” said Weber, who said he remained skeptical after being briefed by Cantor a few weeks ago. “There are basically half a dozen towns with bad access, and these discussions may or may not bear fruit. They may get an agreement from the mayor, but then in this budget climate, the (municipal) governing body could just say, “No, we won’t do it.’
“Historically, it’s been the towns that have been the problem,” Weber added. “Our organization has had to sue, or threaten to sue four towns to obtain access for our users, who are surfers.”
Advocates of new urban waterfront parks will be disappointed with the Christie administration’s stance on funding waterfront acquisitions. Industrial waterfront users have been under pressure to pay for off-site public access as a condition of DEP permits. But now the agency has accepted the arguments of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association that off-site funding amounts to an additional tax on industry.
“We felt like that was a tax” and raised fairness issues, Martin said. While new facilities or complete tear-down and rebuild projects will be required to contribute for access points, existing industrial users will not get that demand as a condition for improvements or expansion, he said.
Companies saw that writing on the wall from the administration months ago, according to Deborah Mans of the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper. Potential private industry partners for a riverfront park in Newark then quit talks with the city, according to Mans.
The rules for urban waterfronts will be a setback from the previous 2007 access rules, which trigger public access requirements when industrial users seek DEP permits, said Mans.
“For us, it’s a public resource, and private interests are using it. The DEP is supposed to be a steward of the resource,” Mans said. “They’re really abdicating their responsibility.”
The existing rule has already contributed to development of waterfront parks in Bayonne, Newark, Elizabeth, and Carteret and other urban areas, the Baykeeper group said in a statement. Before companies bailed out on the city, Newark got $210,000 from waterfront businesses toward the first-ever waterfront park, the group said.
For months before the rules came out, beach access advocates worried the Christie administration will back off even farther from access issues than was required by last year’s appeals court decision that eased the DEP’s demands on Avalon.
The court ruled that Trenton could not withhold beach replenishment funds from Avalon projects to demand certain locations for parking and access at every quarter-mile along the beachfront.
In response, DEP officials said they would fall back on a standard of access every half-mile, which is called for by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when it pays for beach replenishments.
The standard will be “at least a half-mile, or maybe a little flexibility,” said Cantor of the DEP. In their discussions with Long Beach Township, “we’re looking to get them to put in a couple more access points,” Commissioner Martin added.
Mayor Mancini contends the public and the township will get more for the money with its plan. As it stands, the township’s 12 miles of beach have 160 access points, Mancini said: “We’re 10 percent of the Jersey Shore, and we have 15 access points every mile, on average.
“If I had to go into Loveladies and buy properties (for additional access) it would cost $12 million to $15 million and no one would ever go there,” he said. “When Chris Christie was elected, he said there would be no more unfunded mandates — the rhetoric in previous administrations was, “We don’t care, you have to do it.’ ”
Sea Bright, another town with a history of access issues and a tortured relationship with the DEP, has been working with the agency’s beach specialist David Rosenblatt on plans to improve parking, sidewalks and upgrade the borough’s public access points, said borough Administrator Mary Ann Smeltzer.
“They’ve been very cooperative with us, and us with them,” Smeltzer said. “We’re real pleased.”
A public access lawsuit years ago by the DEP resulted in a settlement that Sea Bright had to improve its access and add public facilities including restrooms, Smeltzer said. Now, after meeting with representatives of a DEP planning office late last year, the borough is working on its municipal access plan and “you’ll be seeing some improvements,” she said.
The Avalon court decision blocks the DEP from directly withholding beach replenishment funds from problem towns. But Martin said the new rules still have three fairly strong sanctions:
Towns that refuse to comply with access rules would not be allowed to get state Green Acres funds and aid for open space or recreation.
Access problems will result in towns being ranked lower in eligibility for beach replenishment projects — a way for the DEP to work around the Avalon ruling’s ban on direct withholding.
The DEP can hold back a town’s general permit for beach maintenance. This is probably the biggest stick, Martin said, because towns need those permits for routine beach grooming and sand cleanup.
April 3, 2011 Story by: Kirk Moore: 732-557-5728; email@example.com