FBW | January 27, 2023
“The courts have yet again upheld the rights of the public to access New Jersey’s waterfronts under the Public Trust Doctrine,” exclaimed Don Stitzenberg, the president of the Hudson River Waterfront Conservancy. “The public right has prevailed over private property claims for exclusive access to the shorelines of New Jersey.”
Judge Lisa Perez Friscia of New Jersey State Superior Court in Bergen County has ordered Admiral’s Walk, an Edgewater condo association, to open its Hudson River waterfront to the public. When built, this will complete a critical 900-foot missing piece of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, a state-mandated 18-mile public pathway stretching from the Bayonne Bridge to the George Washington Bridge.
Admiral’s Walk is a 297-unit gated community whose website describes a “private park-like walkway along the river” as one of its amenities. Since it was built in the 1980s, this 8.8-acre site, including the water’s edge, has been off limits to the public.
The Hudson River Waterfront Conservancy, a nonprofit organization responsible for overseeing the construction and maintenance of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, brought this lawsuit in 2019. The Conservancy works closely with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) whose Coastal Zone Management Regulations spell out the walkway requirements.
Beginning in 2016, the Conservancy, in concert with the NJDEP, attempted to work out an agreement with the Admiral’s Walk Condo Association. After negotiations failed to resolve this matter, the Conservancy initiated this legal action.
In her January 14 decision granting summary judgment, Judge Friscia cited a long list of New Jersey court rulings upholding the Public Trust Doctrine dating back to 1821. States hold in trust navigable waters and living resources for the benefit of all the people. This legal tenet is embedded in the Public Trust Doctrine and dates back to the laws of ancient Roman and Greek times.
Today, in the United States, the Public Trust Doctrine is part of our common law. This doctrine applies to lands that were once flowed by the tides. Thus, the Hudson River shoreline, identified by New Jersey’s Coastal Zone Management Regulations as the “filled water’s edge,” is governed by the Public Trust Doctrine. The State of New Jersey used this doctrine as the basis for the establishment of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway regulations in the 1980s.