Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New Jersey's epic beach-access battle

[Updated with additional news clippings on 8/21 and 8/23/08]

One of the longest-playing environmental soap operas in New Jersey involves a cast of rich oceanfront property owners, out-of-towners seeking to claim their DEP-given right to enjoy a day in the sun (especially if it involves ticking off the rich property owners in the process), and local mayors forced to plop port-a-pottys up and down their pristine beaches.

The story plays out against a backdrop of devastating hurricanes, a rapidly eroding shore line and the threat of rising tides spurred on by melting polar icecaps. But wait…it also includes (bugle call in the distance) the chance of a last-minute rescue by an army of slide-ruler-wielding engineers driving bulldozers.

A bit over the top? Perhaps, but this, after all, is New Jersey and things tend to be a bit more dramatic here.

A bit of history...and then a request for your opinion.

For almost eight years now, Garden State residents have been following media accounts of state and federal efforts to encourage, entice, educate and, when necessary, threaten those holdout property owners along Long Beach Island who are still resisting all entreaties to cede legal access (easements) to their properties for a massive program of beach replenishment and dune building.

The $72M project, experts say, will stabilize beaches and dunes where eroding sands have left some homes perilously perched over the sea. It also may help save many more properties along the barrier island when the next major hurricane hits--an event some forecasters say is overdue.

Why would a property owner not jump at the chance to allow the government to save their properties?

Well, some are afraid that higher dunes will block their view of the ocean. Others fret about the noise and mess of construction (such a nuisance, after all, during afternoon cocktails) or the possibility of a lawsuit if a worker is injured on their property. Some just don’t trust government. A smaller number, we suspect, are just plain ornery.

Government, however, holds the trump card. It won’t allow the Army Corps of Engineers to pump one grain of new sand onto on beach in any town unless and until every oceanfront property owner therein grants the access.

The prospect of all your neighbors’ properties being washed out to sea because of your intransigence likely would, on its own, bring even the staunchest hold out around. But New Jersey went and upped the ante

Its Department of Environmental Protection decided that protecting the Shore and its valuable tourism economy (and, yes, all those million-dollar-plus, property-tax-paying homes, too) might be all in a good day’s work. But they also seized on the threat of withholding beach-replenishment funds as an effective tool to implement the social-equality goal of “equal beach access for all.”

So the DEP constructed a beach-restoration policy that not only requires towns to get everyone to waive their property rights when it comes to beach paving and dunes-building but also to provide for easy public access (including parking availability and toilet facilities) to all beaches--including those in residential neighborhoods and at private beach clubs and marinas.

The resulting regulations mandate public access to the beach at ¼ mile intervals along the island’s entire length--and the installation of restroom facilities every ½ mile.

The best argument for this policy is that the ocean belongs to everyone and that millions of dollars of in tax money should not be spent to protect properties that block access to it.

But it clearly has stiffened the opposition among some of the access holdouts. Many of them claim that the DEP is overstepping its role as environmental protector and is now pursuing a social-engineering mission.

Some argue that a person who has worked hard enough to afford a two million dollar home in an upscale town like Loveladies, in the northern half of the island, has earned the right to enjoy its traditional exclusivity—and that this privilege extends to not having port-a-potty placed alongside their property so that out-of-towners can frolic in the surf there instead of at any of the island’s numerous public beaches. Those public beaches, they add, already provide parking and rest rooms--in addition to the restaurants, shops, amusements and marinas that make for the traditional Jersey Shore experience.

What do I think? I think that I shall never make enough money to afford a seaside property in Loveladies (or anywhere else for that matter). But I don't resent those who do, and I don’t expect the state to assure me access to every nice thing that super successful people enjoy.

How about you? Click on the “comment” line below and share your opinion.

It may appear private, but it's for everybody (Atlantic City Press - 8/23)
Beach-lane privacy may not be enforceable (Atlantic City Press - 8/21)

Beach replenishment on hold (Associated Press - 7/20)

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