Bad Deal? Suit fears shore towns clos­ing beach ac­cess

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - FRONT PAGE - By Wayne Parry Fol­low Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/ WaynePar­ryAC

DEAL, N.J. >> It was hard to tell what had Matt Schwartz more stoked: the waves rolling in, or the rel­a­tively balmy 64-de­gree Fe­bru­ary weather as he wrapped up a day of surf­ing.

But some­thing else was both­er­ing him: the pos­si­bil­ity that he won’t be able to surf here for much longer.

The spot where Schwartz car­ried his board ashore is the lat­est flash point in a decades-long bat­tle in New Jer­sey and else­where over who can reach and use the beach.

The Amer­i­can Lit­toral So­ci­ety is suing the bor­ough of Deal, try­ing to nul­lify an or­di­nance it passed in De­cem­ber that would va­cate the end of an ocean­front street in re­turn for a $1 mil­lion pay­ment from a nearby landowner who wants the prop­erty as part of a devel­op­ment pro­posal.

The group, which has fought for decades to pre­serve the pub­lic’s right to ac­cess and use pub­lic beaches, fears a danger­ous prece­dent may be set in which coastal towns sell street ends to pri­vate landown­ers. The new own­ers might then block off spots the pub­lic has long used to reach the sand, ac­cord­ing to ac­cess ad­vo­cates.

“It’s def­i­nitely not fair what they’re do­ing,” Schwartz said as he peeled off his wet suit and put his surf­board away. “It seems like they cater to one class of wealthy peo­ple here. I own a busi­ness and I pay taxes, and I should be able to walk on a pub­lic beach.” Deal says no phys­i­cal bar­rier will pre­vent peo­ple from walk­ing out onto the rocks and the sand even af­ter the street end is va­cated.

But surfers and fish­er­men are wor­ried that is ex­actly what will hap­pen once the trans­fer goes through.

“In the 1850s, our courts rec­og­nized the value of street ends in pro­vid­ing the pub­lic ac­cess to the shore,” said An­drew Provence, the lawyer for the Lit­toral So­ci­ety. “It is im­por­tant to fight this new no­tion that street ends ... can be va­cated for the right price.”

New Jer­sey law re­gard­ing beach ac­cess is based on le­gal prin­ci­ples dat­ing back to the Ro­man Em­pire, in which the tidal wa­ters and beaches are held in trust for the pub­lic.

The Amer­i­can Lit­toral So­ci­ety says the street, Nep­tune Av­enue, has long been used by surfers, fish­er­men and oth­ers.

“Pub­lic ac­cess to the beaches and tidal wa­ter­fronts of our state is con­stantly un­der at­tack,” said Tim Dilling­ham, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “We are tak­ing this ac­tion to pre­vent the loss of this im­por­tant pub­lic ac­cess way to the beach, and to en­sure that other towns aren’t tempted to sell off the pub­lic’s rights to the high­est bid­der.”

Deal coun­ters that the end of Nep­tune Av­enue has never been an of­fi­cial beach ac­cess point. It notes that on an of­fi­cial in­ven­tory of such places main­tained by the state Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion, the av­enue is listed as a vis­ual ac­cess only spot, mean­ing peo­ple can stand there to look at the ocean, but not use it to walk down onto the beach.

A cor­ner of the street end opens onto a row of large boul­ders, placed there as part of a re­cent beach re­plen­ish­ment project fol­low­ing Su­per­storm Sandy. While they don’t faze surfers and fish­er­men, who use the spot daily to get on and off the beach, the boul­ders can make it dif­fi­cult for oth­ers to use. The town says it has an of­fi­cial beach ac­cess point two blocks away, and de­nies it is elim­i­nat­ing any ex­ist­ing beach ac­cess.

Deal says its agree­ment with the de­vel­oper pro­hibits any­one from block­ing vis­ual ac­cess to the beach and ocean, and it main­tains a 12-foot-wide strip of land en­abling ac­cess to the end of the prop­erty where the boul­ders be­gin. That would pre­serve the ex­ist­ing level of ac­cess, the town main­tains.

Paul Fer­ni­cola, an at­tor­ney for Deal, told The As­so­ci­ated Press that no phys­i­cal bar­rier will be erected to block peo­ple from get­ting onto the boul­ders and then ac­cess­ing the sand. But the Lit­toral So­ci­ety and other beach ac­cess ad­vo­cates fear that will be what hap­pens even­tu­ally. Deal’s mayor and the par­ent com­pany of the de­vel­oper that would ac­quire the land did not re­spond to mes­sages seek­ing com­ment on Thurs­day.

John We­ber, a bor­ough coun­cil­man in nearby Bradley Beach, is a long­time surfer who has seen Deal dis­cour­age pub­lic beach use for decades by writ­ing tick­ets to surfers, and try­ing nu­mer­ous times to re­strict park­ing near the beach to res­i­dents only.

“They just don’t get that the beaches be­long to ev­ery­one,” he said. “Surfers, an­glers, all sorts of peo­ple, not just peo­ple who live in their town.”

WAYNE PARRY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

This photo shows boul­ders lead­ing down to the beach in Deal, N.J. on a street end that the town plans to give up to a pri­vate prop­erty owner.

WAYNE PARRY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this photo, An­drew Provence, an at­tor­ney for the Amer­i­can Lit­toral So­ci­ety, looks out at the ocean at the end of a street in Deal, N.J.

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