Ray Cantor, a top aide to Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Martin, acknowledged that many people have concerns about the proposed rules, which rely more on cooperation from local towns than on threats from state regulators.
Before the fourth and final public hearing on the proposal, Cantor said the department may amend its proposal to more clearly spell out public access rights. He didn't give many examples of possible changes, but said one modification might be an amendment specifically stating that fishermen are allowed on beaches at night.
If that happens, it could delay the adoption of new rules by about six months, he said.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocacy group, said allowing towns to shunt most of the public to certain beaches and away from others smacks of segregation-era racial politics.
"We're setting up a system of separate and unequal beach experiences," he told Cantor during a tour of Loveladies before the public hearing. "If you can't afford this, you go to Island Beach State Park and get your 10 square feet of sand."
Bill Wolfe, a former DEP employee, took the metaphor a step further.
"I recall whites-only drinking water fountains," he said, drawing huge applause from the overflow crowd that spilled out into the parking lot. "That's what you have going on down here."
Cantor said the department hasn't heard anything in the first three public hearings to make it change its approach of working with shore towns instead of dictating to them.
Hundreds of New Jersey residents have packed four public hearings, the overwhelming majority of whom blasted the rules, saying they don't trust the state to fight for the public's right to reach the beach. They say giving more authority to local towns will let them side with wealthy oceanfront homeowners who want the public kept away from their homes.
In a briefing for reporters before the hearing, Long Beach Township Joseph Mancini said his town will add 15 to 25 additional public parking spaces in the Loveladies section of the township, which has restricted public beach access for decades. The township is adding a fifth public access point to Loveladies through a section of municipally owned scrub pine trees in the coming weeks, Mancini said.
It's also adding new parking at Bayview Park across from its municipal building about 5 miles south of Loveladies but won't provide shuttle service to Loveladies, where many streets dead-end at expensive beach homes with signs stating "Private Property, No Public Beach Access."
Under the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal concept adopted by New Jersey that dates to the Roman Emperor Justinian, the public has the right to swim in coastal waters and walk along shores. Courts have held that the public has the right to walk or sit on the sand up to the mean high water mark.
Margaret O'Brien, a Holgate resident, urged the crowd to stand up for their rights.
"We became a public trust beach when we were one of the 13 colonies," she said. "That beach belongs to everyone in this room. Don't let them take your rights away!"
The state rewrote its beach rules earlier this year after a court struck down old ones requiring access points every quarter-mile along the shore, as well as parking and bathrooms nearby.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the south Jersey beach town of Avalon that claimed the state overstepped its bounds by requiring too much public access, as well as unreasonable requirements such as 24-hour, round-the-clock access to beaches and marinas.
The new rules ask - but don't require - coastal towns to adopt a public access plan spelling out exactly where the public can get to the beach. For towns that balk, the state has several punishments it can mete out.
One is cutting the town off from funding to help municipalities buy and preserve open spaces. Another is ranking that town lower on the state's funding recommendation list for money to replenish beaches, which often erode through frequent use, storms and other natural processes. And a third is denying the town permits for beach and dune maintenance.
The agency wants to work cooperatively with towns to guarantee beach access. But many fear that the state will let local governments make it more difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to use their beaches.
Joe Woerner, a surfer and member of the Surfrider Foundation, predicted that some of the local access plans adopted by municipalities will be challenged in court and said the state won't provide legal help.
"You will be fighting it yourself with your own tax dollars," he said.
David Brogan of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association praised the new rules for freeing businesses from costly public access requirements, saying the proposal "brings back sanity and common sense."
Several marina owners also praised the DEP for scrapping a requirement that their businesses provide 24/7 public access.