Christie signs bill to save turtle population, vetoes beach smoking ban

John C. Ensslin, The Record

Governor Christie signed a bill late Friday to save the state’s Diamond Terrapins but vetoed a statewide ban on smoking on New Jersey beaches.

The bill signed designates the colorful terrapins as an endangered non-game species that cannot be legally harvested.

He also issued a conditional veto of a bill that would have banned smoking on New Jersey’s municipal beaches, saying that decision should be left up to individual communities. He had vetoed a similar measure in 2014. But this time as a concession to lawmakers, he agreed to let stand a ban on smoking in state-run parks and beaches.

On the terrapin, Christie signed a measure that had won unanimous approval in both the Assembly and the Senate.

“Today we join other Atlantic coastal states that have taken an important step to prevent this unique species from any further decline toward extinction,” Christie wrote.

The terrapin is the only turtle species to live in the Hackensack River, the Meadowlands and New Jersey’s other coastal marshes. They play an important role in protecting the state’s coast line by feeding on snails that can overgraze marsh grasses and turn coastal areas into barren mudflats.

Serious declines in the terrapin population had prompted the Christie Administration to propose an indefinite ban on the harvesting of the species. Harvesting had been on the rise because of demand from Asia, where the terrapins have become a food delicacy.

On the beach smoke ban, Christie used some of the same language as he did when he vetoed a previous version of the bill.

“I abhor smoking,” he wrote in his veto message. “But I continue to believe that the State should not impose its will upon our local governments and instead continue to leave it up to towns and counties whether to ban smoking in their parks and beaches.”

The veto dismayed Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

“I think the governor has failed to take leadership on this issue,” she said, citing a poll that showed a majority of New Jersey residents favored the ban. “I guess he’s not listening,” she added.

Since his last veto of a beach smoking ban in September 2014, the number of communities that have adopted bans has grown to nearly 300 including 12 Shore communities, according to the New Jersey Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy, a Summit-based advocacy group.

The latest version of the bill contained two concessions that were not in the 2014 bill: It exempted golf courses from the smoking ban, and it permitted communities to set aside up to 15 percent of their beaches as smoking areas.

While opposing bans on municipal parks and beaches, Christie wrote that “State parks and beaches are another matter.”

“In light of the Legislature’s continued interest in this area, I am willing to endorse a measure that bans smoking at State-run parks and beaches, but that does not interfere with parks and beaches within the jurisdiction of local governments,” he wrote.

Huttle countered that municipal beach and park goers should be afforded the same protections as those at state facilities.