By Michele S. Byers
It’s been six months since Super Storm Sandy pounded New Jersey, and summer is almost upon us.
Towns up and down the coast are preparing for Memorial Day weekend and the arrival of beach lovers, fishermen, surfers and boaters whose tourism dollars keep the shore economy ticking.
Many shore towns are still busy with post-Sandy repairs, like cleaning debris from sand, helping businesses and homeowners recover, and rebuilding boardwalks. And they’re counting on receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal funds to replenish eroded beaches and build dunes.
With so many projects under way, now would be the ideal time for the state to address a critical issue, long overdue: public access. It’s time to make sure the taxpayers – who foot the bill for beach improvements – have access to those expensive strips of sand they’re saving.
Unfortunately, a state Senate committee just declined to insert language explicitly requiring public beach access into a bill that would establish requirements for a “shore protection project” priority list. Members of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee said they didn’t want any impediments to efforts to restore the shore.
Of course no one wants to delay the shore’s recovery. But there’s no common sense in maintaining the current system.
Public access to water and tidal areas is a right of all New Jersey citizens, but, when it comes to enforcement, the state’s head has been in the sand. New Jersey has too many stretches of shoreline with few beach access points, limited parking near the beach and no public restrooms. Public access means tourism dollars, which help local businesses with recovery.
The proposed bill would give priority to shore protection projects that provide or improve public access, but it doesn’t go far enough. As it reads now, the bill doesn’t explicitly link the shore protection funding prioritization to projects that create access.
It’s a disconnect that shouldn’t be allowed.
“We recommend that public access, and enhanced access, be a required component of the projects, in the same way the bill requires that ‘appropriate mitigation components’ be integral parts of the project before they can be considered for funding,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group.
Dillingham added that federal guidelines for funding contain similar language to ensure that projects are public in nature, and not private.
The beaches, ocean and tidal waterways belong to everyone. New Jersey should not miss this opportunity to make sure that all residents have meaningful access to the investments made with their tax dollars, and to catalyze the recovery of our shore economy.
Please contact your district’s legislators – and bill sponsors Senator Jim Whelan and Assemblyman John McKeon – and ask them to amend the bill (S2600/A3892) to tie state funding to beach access. To find your legislators and their contact information, go to www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to www.njconservation.org or contact me at email@example.com.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.