Surfrider Issues Alert About Increased Beach Closures in New Jersey
Surfrider Foundation Jersey Shore and South Jersey Chapters are no strangers to the consistent drumbeat of beach access issues in our state--we have been fighting to enforce and improve beach access rights for decades and have been involved in specific conflicts with local governments and private beachfront property owners all along the Jersey coastline.
But the summer of 2023 has seen a disturbing uptick in denials of the public’s beach access rights. On September 11, the Mayor of Point Pleasant Beach announced that all Jenkinson’s Beach access points had been padlocked until further notice. On September 14, Seaside Heights announced that anyone swimming would receive a ticket from $100 to $1000.
Finally, in August a NJ resident was issued a summons for trespassing by the Point Pleasant Beach police department when he tried to access a public pathway at Bradshaw’s Beach. The local homeowners association installed a gate and lock across the path barring members of the public from getting onto the beach. The gate is still there today despite a May 2022 letter from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to both the town and the homeowners association telling them it was illegal and it had to be removed.
Point Pleasant Mayor Paul M. Kanitra said Jenkinson’s unilaterally made the decision because of a drowning at an unguarded beach in 2020 that resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of the deceased. The Mayor of Seaside Heights referenced recent drownings and dangerous swimming conditions from Hurricane Lee.
Many different New Jersey groups and citizens rely on beach access for recreation, quality of life, and peace of mind. These groups include surfers, swimmers, bird watchers, fishing groups, and anyone who wants to take a break from modern living and stroll along the shore. And it is their legal right as New Jerseyans.
New Jersey has clear beach access rights language in State regulations, common law, and our State Constitution. These rights originate from the Public Trust Doctrine, in which the public rights to tidal waterways and their shores are held by the state in trust for the benefit of all people. The doctrine further provides that the public has the right to fully utilize these lands and waters for a variety of public activities, including recreating on the dry sand and accessing the ocean.
The Murphy Administration worked to codify the Public Trust Doctrine into State law in 2019, passing the NJ Public Trust Doctrine Act of 2018. That law codifies state obligations to ensure that the public has meaningful access to, and use of, the shoreline, tidal waters and other areas subject to the Public Trust Doctrine.
Furthermore, multiple legal cases over the years have upheld the publics’ right to use New Jersey beaches. Those cases held that in order for the public to enjoy Public Trust lands, they have the right to gain access through, and the use of, dry sand areas on privately owned beaches, and that a private beach owner can not limit vertical or horizontal access to wet and dry sand beach areas for intermittent recreational purposes.
Additionally, if a municipality accepts federal funding for beach replenishment projects, as most did after Hurricane Sandy (and continue to accept in the frequent beach fill projects up and down the NJ coast), additional rights are granted to the public. Those rights include: open and equal public use to all, sufficient parking, and public access points at least every quarter mile.
In a related, but longstanding beach access conflict, the community group Neptune United is trying to open the beach on Sunday morning in Ocean Grove. Ocean Grove is an unincorporated section of Neptune that began as a Christian “camp meeting” in the late 1800s. Through a special charter with Monmouth County, it operates as a largely independent town and does not allow access to the beach before noon on Sundays. There is not a legal exception for beach closures for religious reasons in New Jersey.
Surfrider thanks the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for their enforcement work to date on these beach closures. Official letters of violation have gone out to all of the municipalities and entities involved in beach closures mentioned in this article. We are hopeful that DEP’s continued legal pressure and enforcement action by the State Attorney General, will force these communities to open up beach access to the public to enjoy the benefits of our beaches and ocean.
The onus right now is on beachfront municipalities. Under the Public Trust Doctrine in New Jersey, municipalities are trustees of the beaches within their boundaries and must operate and maintain those beaches for the benefit of all members of the public.
Yes, municipalities do have the right to close beaches for short periods of time for specific dangerous water or beach conditions, but not long term and never for vague reasons. Using pending lawsuits and the specter of future liability is also not a valid excuse to deny public rights as local governments are sued frequently for various reasons – should we close down the sidewalks because somebody sued a municipality over a slip and fall case?
All New Jerseyans must stay vigilant and continue to fight to protect our beach access rights. Private landowners who want the beach to themselves, and local governments who find it easier to lock a beach than protect the public’s rights, will forever attempt to limit beach access for frivolous or illegal reasons. Please contact Surfrider Foundation’s two local Chapters of volunteers if you encounter any beach access issues in your area.