Local officials happy with new state beach and bay access rules

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LOWER TOWNSHIP – The head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection signed a “Public Access Rule” earlier this month, giving Garden State officials leeway to work with local governments on public access to beaches, bays and tidal waterways.

"New Jersey already has great access to its beaches and tidal waterways,” said DEP commissioner Bob Martin. “This rule, developed with extensive input from the public and stakeholders, will make public access even better by setting up a framework that enables the DEP to work one-on-one with municipalities to craft Municipal Public Access Plans that make sense locally, instead of imposing one-size-fits-all mandates.”

The rule will become final upon publication in the New Jersey Register on Nov. 5. It applies to 231 municipalities from the New York-New Jersey Harbor region, south along the entire coastline, and north again along the Delaware Bay and tidal portions of the Delaware River.

“The goal was to enhance public access to New Jersey’s waterways, but the one-size-fits all approach didn’t work done here,” said Lower Township Mayor Michael Beck. “I testified in favor of these modifications at the public hearing in Avalon. A lot of the issues the original rule tried to address were specific to North Jersey. This change – this rule – acknowledges the unique characteristics of our communities here.”

Beck said Lower Township has already drafted its public access plan and submitted it.

“We are in the badminton phase of the game,” he said. “But, the state is working with us to fine tune our plan. We want to be approved early on so we are in line for any grant money that comes available.”

Lower’s plan was unveiled in draft form last spring at a council meeting. It was drafted by planning and zoning director Bill Galestok.

“We submitted the draft last spring,” said Galestok, “and the DEP said they have had some changes to the template that I’ll incorporate, but that we have most of the elements they are looking for.

“Early approval doesn’t just get us in line for state funding available – like Green Acres money – but also helps with permitting for private landowners,” he said. “So an approved plan benefits local government applications as well as business and residential landowner looking to get through the permit process efficiently.”

According to Galestok, Lower Township has identified some 80 public access points to the beaches and tidal waterways.

In Cape May, Mayor Edward Mahaney touted the city’s soon-to-be released plan, as well as the city’s cooperative working relationship with the state environmental watchdogs.

“We have been on top of this issue. We actually, in conjunction with Cape May Point officials, hosted meetings with the DEP down here last November,” Mahaney said. “We have no issue with beach access rules as set out now. They took into consideration public comment.

“And, we are in total compliance. The DEP has been very impressed with our amenities – such as public restrooms – and felt we had more than adequate access for the public. The real issue was areas of North Jersey where access was very restricted.”

The mayor said the city plans to submit its public access plan to the state agency within the next month.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Access Rule recognizes the Jersey Shore and waterfronts are diverse, dynamic areas that provide a wide range of public access opportunities: ocean and bay beaches, marinas and boat ramps, urban greenways and waterfront parks, nature areas and historic sites. The rule maintains existing public access and provides tools to help local governments make it even better.

The rule, to be recognized in DEP permitting processes, provides the opportunity for new points of access to be created and existing ones enhanced by incentivizing local governments to work with the DEP to adopt plans that are designed to meet local and regional access needs. The rule also mandates access be provided for new developments either on-site or off-site if a municipality establishes a public access fund.

The amendments ensure Municipal Public Access Plans include points of access for day and night fishing, provide greater transparency and public involvement in plan development, and mandate public access to and along the Hudson Waterfront Walkway on a 24-hour basis except in limited circumstances.

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