April 14, 2011
Environmental groups opposed to rules proposed by state on water access
By Michael Lamendola
As a resident of South Bergen, you've probably wondered where you're allowed to reach the banks of either of the two major rivers that circumvent the southern tip of the county. While access to both waterfronts, whether for fishing or just a leisurely stroll is supposed to be as unimpeded as possible, it may soon become more difficult to reach the water, according to some environmental groups.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) released last week a list of proposed rule amendments that affect both beach access and access to urban waterways that is being highly contested by environmental groups around the state including the Hackensack Riverkeeper, a local watchdog organization for the river and watershed in South Bergen's backyard. The groups say the new rules roll back rules enacted in 2007 by the state that greatly strengthened the rights of the public to access beaches and tidal waterways.
"When I was a kid, there was no way you could encourage me to go down to the Hackensack River for any type of recreation. It meant getting in the backseat of a dusty car and spending hours going to the Jersey shore," said Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper. "There was no good water recreation that people could enjoy, but within the last 20-30 years, more and more people have taken an interest in their home waters."
Under current rules, existing businesses along waterfronts seeking DEP permits for rehabilitation, alterations or expansions would need to either provide public access along their waterfront properties to the public or pay into a fund that could be used to build parks or provide public access elsewhere, usually through improvements to existing accessible waterfront properties elsewhere or through direct financial contributions to build public parks on the water. The new rules will do away with that requirement. New commercial, residential and industrial development would still need to provide public access or pay into a fund created not by the state, but a municipality, which also has to have a state approved access plan in place. According to the DEP, the rules encourage municipalities to work with the state to develop town-specific municipal public access plans and would dedicate Green Acres funding to make those plans a reality.
"The DEP will work with towns and cities to craft access plans that make local sense and protect the rights and needs of residents and businesses, instead of imposing one-size-fits-all, state-dictated access rules," said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.
Environmental groups like the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club say the rules are actually violating the Public Trust Doctrine that says all tidal waterways belong to the public and putting access plans in the hands of municipalities will stymie adequate access progress.
"Calling these public access rules is an oxymoron; they do the opposite. They violate the public trust and limit the public's right to access their beaches and waterways," said Jeff Tittel, director of the NJ Sierra Club.
Thom Ammirato, a spokesman for North Arlington, whose town borders the Passaic River on its westerly end, said leaving public access plans up to municipalities will just further burden already stretched thin local governments.
"Municipalities have more than enough responsibilities right now and not nearly enough money to carry out yet another state mandate," said Ammirato. "At a time when municipalities are struggling with minimal state aid and budget caps, I don't see how the municipal officials can be asked to take on more responsibility."
Sheehan said with lessening avenues for funding and providing public access along the water, it not only hurts the public, but hurts the river. He said because of resurgence in recreational activities on the water, the public has been his eyes and ears for tipping his organization off about polluters. Sheehan noted that the current rules requiring contributions for a lack of public access by companies have led to large waterfront parks in Newark and Bayonne.
"What gets me upset is the argument DEP tries to make that the current regulations are not good for the economy or job market; that's exactly the opposite," said Sheehan. "The more consumer friendly the waters are, the higher the values of waterfront properties will be."
Locally, agencies, towns and recreational organizations have done their best with private donations, municipal funds and grants to make the most of providing waterfront access to walkers, boaters and fishermen. Ammirato said the borough is currently looking at ways to purchase an old automotive junk yard on River Road to build a parking lot so public access to the riverbank is easier for residents. He also noted the expansive Riverside County Park in both North Arlington and Lyndhurst provides acres of waterfront access. The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) is in the midst of constructing a multi-million dollar passive recreation park and boat launch where the former Barge Club restaurant used to be in Carlstadt on the banks of the Hackensack River. The park is the latest in several the NJMC has helped construct along the river and outlying marshes.