NEWARK, NJ (CBSNewYork/AP) – Carol Johnston grew up in Newark, barely aware that it had a river.

“It was locked away behind dirty, rusty fences” or other barriers, she said.

Yet like the state’s 127 miles of sandy ocean beaches, urban rivers and bays are supposed to be just as accessible to the public under the law.

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But proposed changes to the state’s coastal access rules could have a big impact in urban and industrialized parts of the state, according to a coalition of environment and beach access groups who want the proposed rules to be improved. They say a rewrite of coastal access rules due out next month doesn’t ensure that the residents of poor or urban communities can fish, walk along or even look at rivers or bays.

In particular, the proposed changes say that for existing sites that are being renovated or expanded within their current boundaries, if public access is not currently granted to the site, it does not need to be granted in the future. Current regulations impose a responsibility to either grant public access, usually through walkways, or to contribute to funding public access projects nearby.

The city of Newark has for two years has been pushing to set up a park along the Passaic River.

Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan says that city had been talking with companies which own the land lining the river, but, “now that the DEP has proposed this rule all four of those companies have walked away from the table.”

“The waterfront belongs to the people; the people have a right to use the waterfront,” said Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper environmental group.

In Newark alone, she said, current rules have resulted in the contribution of $210,000 by waterfront businesses toward construction of a new riverfront park.

That river was never part of the landscape for many city residents, said Johnston, an official with the Ironbound Community Corporation.

“Many of us who grew up in Newark didn’t know there was a river here,” she said. City residents “have to find their recreation within the city. They don’t have the resources to drive to the 127 miles of beaches.”

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 their shores. Courts have held that the public has the right to walk or sit on the sand up to the mean high water mark.

Ray Cantor, a consultant working with state environmental protection commissioner Robert Martin, said the only significant change affecting urban areas under the proposed new rules is the lack of a public access requirement for renovations or expansions of existing industrial or port projects in which there has not been public access in the past.

“If that’s ‘weakening things,’ then I’ll accept that,” he said.

But Cantor said the new rules do not take away any access currently enjoyed by the public. He said they may result in enhanced access to urban waterways when the state works with local communities to decide appropriate access levels and locations, including the funding of public access elsewhere in the same community. Cantor also said towns can choose to fund multi-town pools of money for public access.

John Weber, an official with the Surfrider Foundation, said talk like that might sound good, but noted none of it is explicitly laid out in the new regulations.

Cantor said most of the uses that currently block public access to waterways are things like refineries or ports, where there is no public desire for access.

“We don’t really need to launch a kayak at Conoco-Philips,” he said, referring to a large oil refinery in Linden along the Arthur Kill.

Capt. Bill Sheehan, executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, said cities around the United States have used urban waterway access as a successful redevelopment tool, citing Baltimore, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Louisville, and Portland, Ore.

“These cities have taken what were abandoned waterfronts similar to Newark and turned them into the showcases of their communities,” Sheehan said. “Businesses sprang up, restaurants sprang up. In Newark, Jersey City, Camden, Trenton, we have these beautiful waterways, and New jersey citizens own these waterways. You can’t take the waterways away from us.”

DEP spokesman Lawrence Hajna said the type of private commercial or residential waterfront development used in the cities cited by Sheehan would be covered by the new rules. Developers of those projects would be required to provide or fund public access to the water, he said.

The new rules were proposed last summer. They will be published in early April in the New Jersey Register, followed by a 60-day public comment period. Then the Department of Environmental Protection will evaluate the responses before deciding whether to implement the changes. That could mean it will be summer 2012 before any significant changes are made.

The citizens of, in this case, New Jersey, they own the waterfront,” says Sheehan. “People own the waterfront. The people.”

He hopes the state will withdraw the proposed rule changes.

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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