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The Beaches, Bays, and Rivers Are Yours

homes built cheek to jowl along Long Beach Island block public access to beach

homes built cheek to jowl along Long Beach Island block public access to beach

Hundreds Turn out To Condemn DEP Proposal at Final Public Hearing in Long Branch

We’ve been following the debate as the Department of Environmental Protection continues to receive strong public criticism and opposition to proposed new public access rules from virtually all quarters – surfers, fishermen, environmentalists, boaters, urbanists, etc. The proposal would limit access to the state’s beaches, bays and urban riverfronts.

The only groups supporting the DEP proposal are the NJ Business and Industry Assc., Chamber of Commerce, and Marina operators, who are granted “regulatory relief” and reduced fees for industrial facilities on waterfronts that block public access. Under 2007 Corzine Administration rules nixed by Christie’s DEP, those facilities were required to compensate the public for loss of access. Fee revenues were used to help create riverfront parks and other public access elsewhere.

So I went down to listen and speak, as a huge overflow crowd turned out and packed the final public hearing last night Long Beach.

Ray Cantor, Special Advisor to DEP COmmissioner Martin and hearing officer on rule proposal

Ray Cantor, Special Advisor to DEP Commissioner Martin and hearing officer on rule proposal

I got there early and had planned to go on a pre-hearing tour DEP conducted to spin the media, but was prohibited from doing so by Ray Cantor of DEP. Cantor concluded that I was an advocate, not media.

DEP decides who the “Stakeholders”. DEP decides who can access the beach. And now DEP arbitrarily decides who is legitimate media. The abuse of power and arrogance just boggles the mind.

Cantor opened the hearing, repeating DEP’s continuing pattern of half truths and misleading spin. He claimed that the Department’s intent is exclusively to expand and “maximize” public access and respond to the Avalon Court decision.

He thinks we are stupid.

Sounding like an Israeli right winger defending illegal settlements as “facts on the ground” in Palestine, Cantor claimed that current public access restrictions are a function of geography and history, and that DEP is powerless to change that.

Cantor claimed that no current access will be lost, but did not say how that claim is supported by the proposed new rules or how it would be enforced. Cantor claimed that in the proposed “Municipal Access Plan” approach, that DEP was not delegating any powers to local government because DEP could reject local plans. He then went on to respond to critics, basically claiming that they were misinformed.

Cantor’s advocacy and spin – repeatedly – was way out of line in terms of what should be an objective and neutral role as Hearing Officer, where he is limited to simply restating a summary of the published rule and listening to the testimony.

Tim Dillingham of ALS later effectively rebutted Cantor on all that. The proposal goes far beyond the Avalon decision, which only struck down DEP’s ability to require public access as a condition of state funding for beach replenishment or open space -{clarifying note: the decision found the access requirement was not limited only to state funding, but applied to all towns located along a tidal waterway and that rule was not statutorily authorized by the Legislature. Sorry, I was working off of second hand info instead of my own reading of the case. The the DEP power struck down was narrow and limited}.

Most significantly, Cantor signaled that the DEP was considering making changes and was open to a compromise. He noted a recent change in law that allows DEP to make what are called “substantive changes on adoption” of proposed rules.

This change in law grew out of the Christie Red Tape Report. It is designed to allow lobbyists for special interests to re-write rules they oppose. We strongly opposed the bill in the legislature and called it a huge potential abuse, amounting to “bait and switch”.

Cantor is now validating that criticism by engaging in behind the scenes political negotiationshe openly mentioned a meeting with fishermen –  that make a mockery of the traditional rulemaking public comment process.

I suspect that he is pursuing a “Let’s Make a Deal” strategy by offering minor concessions to various groups in exchange for supporting – or abandoning public opposition – to the proposal.

DEP took another severe pounding last night. Public pressure is mounting to force DEP to withdraw the proposal, or make major changes to address legitimate concerns raised by many critics. Opponents must keep the heat on Governor Christie to force withdrawl of this proposal.

The opponents have conducted a hugely successful campaign, built political power,  and are winning the public debate. This is the first effective take down of the Christie Administration on its horrible environmental policy. The effort could be a model and set a precedent for more broader engagment to block the rollbacks now underway across the board. They need to keep this larger picture in mind, stay unified, and not be bought off by Mr. Cantor’s piecemeal reforms. Cantor is using a strategy that seeks to divide and conquer the coalition that has been so successful.

Here is fairly critical press coverage:

Over 200 people packed the room and spilled out into the parking lot. The most effective testimony last night was by John Weber of Surfrider – who played a tape of Bruce Springstein singing Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land“, accompanied by photos like this:

Long Beach, NJ

Long Beach, NJ

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