Public Beach Access in New Jersey

Christopher Yoda is a student in the Coastal and Ocean Policy Master’s program and is graduating this spring. He graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in Organizational Management Studies and a Minor in Business. Chris became interested in public access and related coastal management issues during his summer internship with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Picture: Surfrider Jersey Shore Chapter
There is a long history of some towns and private beach clubs in New Jersey attempting to restrict access to the beach to residents or members only. The most recent iteration of this can be seen in Deal, New Jersey, where the town has attempted to limit parking near the beach to residents only. Within the State’s Coastal Management Plan, under Enforceable Coastal Policies the government is required to provide “visual and physical access” to the waterfront. In some cases, the state falls short of its goal of physical and visual access because some municipalities, private organizations and private property owners attempt to limit access to the general public by means of exclusion.

The legal principle of public access rests in the Public Trust Doctrine. The origins of the Public Trust Doctrine date back to Roman law and states that navigable waters are resources that belong to the public, and are not eligible for private ownership. New Jersey recognizes the Public Trust Doctrine as an extremely important principle and applies it to the public’s access to and use of tidal waterways and their shorelines for the benefit of all people. 

Picture: NJDEP
Data from the NJDEP’s Public Access Website, demonstrates that the average beach town has 30.75-access points on 2.17 miles of beach per town. Moreover, of the 95 miles of beach, not including state parks, the State as a whole averages 14 access points per mile. 

Three towns in Monmouth County that have had public access issues in the past, are far below the state averages for public access points. 
  • Sea Bright has 8 access points along 3.7 miles of beach, which is 2.16 access points per mile. 
  • Monmouth Beach has 5 access points along 1.62 miles of beach, coming out to 3.08 access points per mile. 
  • Deal has 8 access points along 1.62 miles of beach, which is 4.94 access points per mile. 
Of the 33 towns with less than 2 miles of beach, Sea Bright, Monmouth Beach and Deal are in the top 4 for fewest access points per mile.

Currently, under the Coastal Area Facility Review Act, The Department of Environmental Protection reviews and approves permits for all coastal development in the state. The Department however, does not have the authority to require towns and municipalities to abide by any set standard of public access. Instead, municipalities come up with their own individual plans for access points. 


This paradigm has been debated and gone back and forth in the courts for a decade. Right now, a new bill (S-2470/A4092), “the public access bill” is being voted upon which would codify public access across the state. If passed, the bill will take power away from the municipalities in developing their own individual access plans. More responsibility would be put on the Department to be hands-on in public access decisions in each municipality. 

Regardless of the outcome, it proves to be a difficult task to satisfy all stakeholders and contentions will likely continue into the future.

A second, perhaps equally important factor for limits on beach access is a value-driven disconnect between the private property owners in municipalities with access issues and the general public. This disconnect may be founded in several different dynamics. 

Perhaps the most important dynamic however, is financial or socio-economic status of homeowners. Many of the towns with access issues do not target summer tourists as much as some neighboring municipalities and are mostly private residential communities. It is hypothesized that the wealth of these residents has created an unfair advantage over the average beachgoer seeking access. The wealth of these residents can influence decision makers, afford litigation fees and make limiting access possible. 

The future of public access in New Jersey relies upon the “Public Access Bill” currently being voted upon by state legislatures. Recently, the bill has faced opposition by lobbyists attempting to block its passage. Without the passage of this bill, the statue quo will be reinforced and it will be easier for certain stakeholders to attempt to limit access moving forward.

Comments

  1. When I lived in New Jersey, the town of Wildwood had free access beaches and a beach access point at the end of each street. Wildwood’s beaches are made up of motels and condo complexes which is vastly different from the single family homes that dominate less accessible beaches. Obviously Wildwood and the less accessible beach towns are trying to attract different types of people/tourists. As Chris pointed out, the towns that limit beach access points also try very hard in other ways to deter people from using their beaches because they want to keep them exclusive (through beach tag programs and limited/expensive parking). I wonder if people who normally vacation in Wildwood would go to Deal or Sea Bright if those town had free beach access and free parking. I doubt they would, but I think that might be one of the concern of the residents who live in Deal, Sea Bright, and Monmouth Beach.

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  2. For a state that holds the Public Trust Doctrine in such high regards, it's troubling that these beaches are able to get away with limited access points. It would be interesting to know whether those beaches receive nourishment projects and if so, where that money comes from. If it is from the state, county, or federal sources, it seems like an even bigger ethical issue that beach-goers are being restricted by limited access (especially when their tax dollars likely helped pay for the beach). It will be interesting to hear how the voting on that bill turns out.

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  3. As someone who grew up in a very public/accessible beach town in southwest Florida, this issue is really interesting to me. Since space is limited along the New Jersey Coast and most of it is already developed, you would think that public access is something that beach clubs and private property owners would learn to coexist with. I wish I could say that the association between wealth and exclusivity is surprising, but it definitely isn't and is a conflict paralleled in a whole bunch of aspects of society. After I moved form FL to VA, the question, "how far will the public transportation buses go from the inner city to the suburbs?" was a similar issue, because Loudoun County (second wealthiest county in the US) didn't want the "riff raff" from the city having access to their neighborhoods. It sounds like a similar attitude is manifesting in NJ towns like Deal and Seabright. As far as alternatives to fixing the problem, I can see why the state has little interested in taking on the regulatory responsibility of creating and enforcing access plans for all municipalities; surely staffing and funding are a limiting factor, just like in many other agencies. However, this ambiguity allows towns to get away with whatever plans they want, since there are no standards. I think that the best alternative is defining the parameters of achieving public access in a list of requirements that the towns have to meet is the best compromise. That way, the municipalities still have authority and flexibility within their own access plans, but the state will be held accountable for evaluating those plans and making sure they meet the required parameters.

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  4. Being from New Jersey and spending so much time on the coast, I can definitely find a personal connection to this issue and see how it plays out. The dynamic between the wealthy and non wealthy stakeholders is not surprising, but I would think that enabling access would provide economic benefits that would be appealing to many stakeholders. Limiting access points also maintains exclusivity regarding privacy, culture, and atmosphere, which is a valid argument for those stakeholders who live there permanently. I can understand that private, wealthy home owners want exclusivity and greater access, but as mentioned the coast is for the benefit of everyone. Taxpayers should be able to enjoy these resources regardless of whether they own a house near the beach.

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  5. Growing up going to beaches with public/accessible beaches, its interesting to read about this issue. It seems like there should be a set standard for public access so that municipalities cannot create their own plan that has a limited amount of public access areas. I can understand that residents want to restrict the access to their beach so that it will discourage people from going and overcrowding the beach. However, they do not own the ocean or its beaches. Everyone has a right to go to the beach because it is an interest for everyone. The homeowner's interests should not be the only factor when creating plans for public access. Everyone should be able to get to the beach easily and not have it be a hassle. It would provide economic benefits to the beach community, which you would think would be important to the residents of the community. It will be interesting to see the results of voting on the bill and if public access will change.

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  6. Regardless of who has beachfront property, the public should be able to access the beach especially in those visitors are from New Jersey. They should be able to enjoy the beach that some of their taxes are used for beach nourishment along with having to pay for parking along with seasonal or daily passes to enjoy the beach. I feel that the state should make a rule that allows a certain number of accesses per mile. As an example, a town should have 5 access for each mile of beach.

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  7. This issue is all to familiar to me as it shares a likeness to beach access in my home town in NY. Private beaches, town beaches, and private home take up an astoundingly large portion of the beach front and they actively exclude the public from obtaining access to the ocean. Fee's, memberships, or ownership is sometimes the only way in which someone can enjoy the ocean, but its extremely expensive to purchase that access. Public access of the ocean and its shoreline is a right and not a privilege. It may be beneficial to look at how the public would respond to paying a small fee for more access points compared to no fees for a few access points. This would be a good gauge of demand for beach access in the area.

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  8. As someone that grew up going to beaches in the South I view this issue as crazy. For the beaches located on the southeast it is just public knowledge to have easy access to the beach and most of the time free parking. I can definitely see how this can be a soci-economic issue. I wonder what will happen in the future as the beaches erode and loose area as sea levels rise. The power seems to be in the hands of the municipalities, which could be controlled by the very people that have houses to being with.

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