LONG BRANCH, N.J. — The metal gate across the walkway leading to the beach at the end of Garfield Terrace leaves little room for misunderstanding.
"Private access, residents only," one sign says. Another makes the same point in more detail. "No trespassing. No public access. Private property. Violators prosecuted to full extent of law."
But the site is listed as a public beach access site on a state registry of spots where the public can gain entry. Beach access advocates walked through the gate Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the state held a public hearing on proposed changes to rules that give local towns more control over where the public can reach the beach.
Their defiant stroll was intended to make a point about the obstacles some shore towns and private property owners put between the public and the sand.
"We're standing on land that belongs to all of us," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Over there, that belongs to them," he said, pointing to oceanfront homes.
"They closed the gate on the people of New Jersey," he said. "Their houses get our money to fix their beaches, but once they get it, they don't want us here. We own these beaches; they belong to all of us. But these rules take the side of the 1 percent instead of the 99 percent of us."
The state is revising its beach access rules, granting more power to local communities to decide what level of beach access is right for them, subject to state approval. Several years ago, the Cape May County shore town of Avalon sued the state, succeeding in overturning more stringent rules that mandated public access every quarter-mile, along with adequate parking and restrooms.
Officials in shore towns say they like the flexibility the new rules give them, and marina owners are particularly glad a rule requiring them to provide round-the-clock public access was dropped. But beach access advocates say the new rules give even more authority to towns that have created beach access problems in the first place.
Take the Long Branch gate with the sign, for example. Ray Cantor, an official with the state Department of Environmental Protection who oversaw two hearings Wednesday, said the site is privately owned. But it is still listed on a DEP list of public access sites.
"We have no legal control over what is on the sign or not," Cantor said. "It is private property, but the public does have access to it. If this is the biggest problem with public access we have, that's not so bad."
Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider said the site has been the focus of legal battles for at least 20 years, and he agreed it is privately owned. He said he does not know if the city has the power to do anything about the gate or the foreboding signs attached to it.
"That's one of the whole problems with this: who enforces it?" asked Ralph Coscia, president of Citizens' Right to Access Beaches. "We don't know."
He said New Jersey was making good progress toward ensuring public beach access under the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat. Corzine's DEP commissioner issued the stricter rules that the Avalon court decision overturned.
"It looked like we were on the right track," Coscia said. "Now it feels like we're banging our heads against a wall."
The administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie wants to let local towns write their own public access plans for the shoreline, subject to state approval. The proposal suggests access points every half-mile, but allows local towns to decide how much parking and restrooms — if any — to offer.
The DEP has since tweaked the rules to ensure off-hours access for fishermen, and to let marina owners keep the public out at night.
Joseph Pallotto, president of the Asbury Park Fishing Club, said his group has brought DEP officials to the gate to point it out. He also noted that no parking is allowed on the nearby streets, further deterring those who would use the beach.
Ray Menell, another fisherman, predicted more conflicts between homeowners and anglers seeking to cast a line into the ocean.
"It's getting worse and worse every year," he said. "We're seeing less and less access to the shore."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC