Why do we care about public access to the Hudson River? Because we believe that every citizen deserves not only a clean river, but also a way to experience and enjoy it. If people are allowed to use the river, then they will appreciate it, and they will defend it. Our goal is to expand access to the river for a variety of uses – sailing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, fishing, nature study, environmental research and education, art, and just relaxing and contemplating its grandeur – in order to improve the lives of this generation and the ones that follow and to impress upon them that the Hudson is the lifeblood of the region.
The Hudson is a world-class river. It travels over 300 miles from its source in the Adirondacks through the Appalachian Mountains in the Hudson Highlands, and into 150 miles of tidal estuary to the mouth of New York Harbor. The River is known for its vast ecological diversity, for its place in American history, and for its sheer beauty.
Once highly polluted, the Hudson River has experienced a remarkable recovery in the past 30 years, rebounding from decades of neglect and abuse. The improvement in water quality has sparked a renewed and widespread interest in water-related recreation. As the river gets cleaner, opportunities for recreation and enjoyment increase. But those opportunities are only theoretical if there’s no access. The significance of this natural treasure in our midst is greatly diminished if the communities living along its shores are physically disconnected from it. And, unfortunately, that has been the case for many years.
Typically, much of the riverfront has been off-limits to ordinary citizens. Towns often treated the river as their “back door” – a place to hide unsightly factories, sewage plants and garbage dumps. Access to the river has been blocked by industrial uses, barbed-wire fences and, most significantly, railroad tracks. Most of the Hudson shoreline, both east and west, is girded by train tracks, which severely limit the public access to the river. Riverkeeper first got involved in the railroad issue in 1993 when it received a call from a fisherman who had been arrested for fishing on the river side of the tracks.
To truly appreciate the Hudson and all its wonder, people need to be able to get to the water’s edge, and also onto and into the river for swimming, boating and fishing. Many riverfront communities are currently redeveloping their waterfronts.
Our challenge is to ensure that true public access is not denied by commercial development. We endeavor to protect all the various recreational uses of the river – fishing, sailing, motor boating, canoeing, kayaking and swimming, as well as more passive forms of recreation. And this access needs to be provided in an environmentally-sensitive manner, not harming – and preferably enhancing – habitat in the process.
These federal and state laws and regulations are among those which protect your right of public access to the Hudson and other waterways:
The Public Trust Doctrine
Waterfront Revitalization of Coastal Areas and Inland Waterways Act
The Federal Coastal Zone Management Act
Railroad Law Section 90
First Amendment to U.S. Constitution
The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal precedent dating back to Roman times. It holds that navigable rivers, streams, wetlands, seashores and bays belong to the people. The doctrine declares that all of us have an unassailable right to access and use the waterfront for traditional purposes such as navigation, commerce and fishing. A growing body of U.S. case law has expanded that definition to include the assurance of diverse recreational uses, as well as a guarantee of the protection of habitats and natural systems.
According to the evolving body of modern law defining the Public Trust Doctrine, government – especially state government – acts as a public trustee. Under the Doctrine, states “must ensure and protect the public’s right to freely access, use and enjoy navigable waters and the lands beneath them” (from Taking Back What is Rightfully Yours; An Owner’s Manual for the Hudson – Raritan Estuary and Guide to the Public Trust Doctrine, prepared by NY/NJ Baykeeper).
The Waterfront Revitalization of Coastal Areas and Inland Waterways Act (State Executive Law, Article 42), including Policy 19 and Policy 20 (see below), requires that public access be provided to the public-owned foreshore and to public water-related recreation resources. In addition, Policy 2 favors development of water-depended uses at waterfront sites, and Policies 21 and 22 mandate that water-related recreation be enhanced and encouraged. (See link to NYS Dept. of State, Coastal Policies under Related Info.)
Policy 19 states Protect, Maintain, And Increase The Level And Types Of Access To Public Water-Related Recreation Resources And Facilities, and further provides that “existing access from adjacent or proximate public lands or facilities to public water-related recreation resources and facilities shall not be reduced.”
Policy 20 states Access To The Publicly Owned Foreshore And To Lands Immediately Adjacent To The Foreshore Or The Water’s Edge That Are Publicly Owned Shall Be Provided And It Shall Be Provided In A Manner Compatible With Adjoining Uses, and further provides that “Existing access from adjacent or proximate public lands or facilities to existing public coastal lands and/or waters shall not be reduced.”
The Federal Coastal Zone Management Act is the basis for additional state policies and regulations, and contains policies similar to Waterfront Revitalization above. The Act is often implemented locally through LWRPs (Local Waterfront Revitalization Plans). Below is a list of Municipalities with Approved LWRPs:
New York City
EPA regulations 40 C.F.R. § 230.10(a)(3) require using non-aquatic sites rather than aquatic sites for development if the use is non-water dependent and there is an alternative.
Municipalities may initiate new crossings after holding a hearing and making a determination on the need for a crossing (but the DOT determines whether the crossing is at-grade or grade-separated).
Relying in part on free speech principles under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Connecticut’s highest court has unanimously affirmed the right of non-residents to use town parks and beaches throughout the state. In February 1998, a law student filed a lawsuit challenging a Town of Greenwich ordinance that restricts the use of parks and beaches by non-residents. The Connecticut Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the opening of Greenwich beaches to the public. In July 2001, the Connecticut Supreme Court found that the Greenwich Point Park was a “public forum” that must be open to “expressive activity” of any kind – and that to limit the park to non-residents would prevent them from exercising those rights. Brenden P. Leydon v. Town Of Greenwich, et al., 257 Conn. 318, 2001 Conn. Lexis 321 (July 26, 2001).
To review and download maps showing boating and fishing access points throughout the Hudson River Estuary visit the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation site: http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/41728.html
Riverkeeper letter to DEP on public access restrictions on Newtown Creek