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Groups sue NJ over new beach access guidelines

David Porter, Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Recently implemented rules by New Jersey's environmental authority unjustly limit the public's access to beaches and waterways while protecting the interests of industry and wealthy landowners, two environmental groups claim in a lawsuit filed against the state.

The notice of appeal was filed Tuesday in state Superior Court in Trenton by the NY/NJ Baykeeper and the Hackensack Riverkeeper. It claims the state Department of Environmental Protection exceeded its authority when it adopted the rules last month.

The Public Access Rule took effect Nov. 5 and applies to more than 200 towns. It grants more power to local communities to write their own access plans, subject to state approval.

The suit also claims the DEP's actions violated the Public Trust Doctrine, which "provides that public rights to tidal waterways and their shores in the state are held by the state" and "establishes the right of the public to fully utilize these lands and waters for a variety of public activities," according to a DEP handbook.

"It is New Jersey's responsibility under the Public Trust Doctrine to manage Public Trust resources (tidal waters and the shoreline) for the benefit of all citizens," said Capt. Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper. "When DEP adopted its new rule they, in effect, declared that the state no longer has to uphold its duty."

The suit claims that one outgrowth is that most developers won't be required to provide public access if they expand or redevelop a site, as they did previously.

The DEP should "protect the rights of all the people in the state, not just industrial interests and wealthy landowners," Sheehan and NY/NJ Baykeeper Debbie Mans said in a joint statement.

A DEP spokesman denied that the new rule limits public access.

"The Public Trust Doctrine sets the starting point for public access," spokesman Larry Hajna said. "The Public Access Rule used the Public Trust Doctrine to build upon and enhances public access. Absolutely nothing in the rule diminishes the public access that we already have."

Hajna said local officials in coastal and urban communities have praised the rule for giving them the tools to make access better for everyone.