Summer is Here! (How Your Access to the Jersey Shore is Threatened)
It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the start of the three months of the year when Philadelphians’ thoughts turn to New Jersey not as a punch line but as an escape. Many of you are no doubt quietly planning (plotting?) how to get out of work before 3 o’clock tomorrow, and GPSing the local roads off of the Atlantic City Expressway and the Garden State Parkway because this year is THE year you make it to Ocean City in less than two hours. You can feel it. It’s going to happen!
As you are stretching out that beach chair, digging your toes into the sand, and working up the courage to “go under” in 58 degree water, spare a thought, and maybe a donation, for the environmental and legal organizations that protect not just the coast itself but access to it. The price of your beach badge, the parking located near it, the restrooms, the lifeguards, 24-hour access, public right of ways, and even your ability to walk along the high tide line from one beach to another are all rights that have been won and protected for you, and all visitors and residents of New Jersey, through litigation against the private residential and commercial landowners who believe they own the entire waterfront and the local municipalities who back them up out of greed.
And make no mistake – your ability to use the coast remains under siege (even as your tax dollars pay yearly for the replenishment projects that prevent beachfront property from literally being washed out to sea).
New Jersey law is quite clear that the all riparian lands are owned by the state in trust for the people. It’s an ancient doctrine dating to Roman times. No one can prevent your access to the high tide mark, no one can prevent you from walking along the coastline from beach to beach, and municipalities have no legal right to prevent you from accessing the beach after dusk.
Funds from beach badge sales must be placed in a separate account, with the goal of having no money left in that account at the end of the season. Compliant municipalities often grant free beach days in August to ensure that. The price of your beach badge must be tied directly to the cost of running the beach itself (lifeguards, restrooms, garbage pickup, etc.), and not used to pay for ambulances, HAZMAT equipment, and town hall upgrades, to name a few of more blatant abuses committed by various municipalities in the last few years.
The responsibility of forcing compliance, which encompasses everything from ensuring 24 hr access (the reason you can enjoy a simple pleasure like walking along the beach at 8 P.M.) to forcing municipalities to change their parking zones and time limits in order to make beach access realistic for families and day-trippers, to keeping beach badge prices relatively (I use that term loosely) affordable, used to fall to the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate. During the 1970s and 1980s the Public Advocate won a series of rulings that created the beach access framework and ensured snooty Shore towns couldn’t price out the people whose tax dollars enable them to exist. Unfortunately, the Public Advocate is no more, and municipalities, with the help of complacent state legislators (of both parties) and the Christie Administration, have spent the past few years running freight trains through the beach access laws.
State legislators are pushing a series of beach access regulations that would give local municipalities far greater control over what are inalienable rights that aren’t the state’s to give away. And most local municipalities have no interest in keeping access for the people. Being chased off the beach at sunset by the local police departments will be a reality. Being unable to walk along the coast will be a reality. Fences and barriers will be a reality.
The American Littoral Society is one of the major organizations that fights to protect your right to access and enjoy the beach. Their website is here: http://www.littoralsociety.org/protecting_access_shore.aspx
Consider donating your time or making a monetary donation. And if you’re a Shore homeowner, take a close look at what the rules and regulations are really providing, because many of the things that you think the current/proposed rules would force you to do (ie, provide public parking and bathrooms), are myths.
New Jersey’s coastline is a public treasure. Let’s keep it that way.