People who want to make sure they can get onto the sand in New Jersey without a court order swamped the governor's office with more than 1,000 "Dear Gov. Christie" postcards on Wednesday, asking him not to water down a right that dates to the Roman Empire.
The issue is a particularly emotional one in New Jersey, one of a handful of places that make people pay to walk on the sand or swim in the water.
The cards from residents and vacationers from as far away as Canada ask Christie to reject the state Department of Environmental protection's proposal to let towns decide where and when access to the sand should be provided, subject to state approval.
More than 40 groups oppose the proposal. Their representatives held a news conference at the Statehouse before the cards, which bore photos of signs saying "Private Property" and "No Public Beach Access," were handed over to a representative of Christie's office.
"Taxpayers are paying for beaches that we don't have access to," wrote Gary Wright of Red Bank. "Where's the logic in that? More and more, the haves-and-have-nots divide gets wider."
Cori Bremeo of Bradley beach was succinct.
"If I pay for a beach, I want to be able to use the beach," she wrote.
Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, countered that opponents don't understand what's being proposed.
"There presently are no access rules, given that they've been struck down, and we are not cutting back on access whatsoever," he said. "Furthermore, the DEP is proposing rules that provide serious disincentives for towns that attempt to be restrictive. These are the facts."
The state rewrote its beach access rules this year, saying its hand was forced by a 2008 appeals court ruling that struck down more specific rules requiring public access points every quarter-mile, as well as parking and rest rooms near beaches.
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 stricter set of regulations had been issued under former state environmental Commissioner Lisa Jackson, now head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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 process. And a third is denying the town permits for beach and dune maintenance.
The state environmental department will make a final decision on the rules sometime after the fourth and final public hearing on the plan is held next week.
The agency says it can accomplish more by working cooperatively with towns rather than imposing burdensome, one-size-fits-all rules or threatening penalties.
"It's called the Department of Environmental Protection," said Tom Fote, president of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association. "Their job is to protect the right of the people to enjoy the environment and resources of New Jersey."
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.
Helen Henderson of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocacy group, said the issue involves fundamental rights.
"The DEP cannot eliminate our right to enjoy our state's coast any more than they can eliminate our right to free speech," she said. "These rules give to protect the rich and exclude and take from the poor. This law allows towns to say, `Sorry, no you can't" and we think that's wrong."
Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, predicted the post cards would be discarded without being read.
"This will be the first thing in the history of this administration that gets recycled," he said.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.