The tide has turned once again in a familiar Sea Bright beach access fight.
After a settlement in the courts in 2006 that called for a string of private beach clubs to open at least portions of their beachfronts, one club, Sea Bright Beach Club, refused and is now being forced, via a new state Supreme Court ruling, to stop limiting public access, a Star Ledger story reported.
The ruling is based on the idea that as taxpayer-funded beach replenishment made the beaches at the club more extensive, then taxpayers who foot the bill for it should be able to use those beaches.
The new ruling, which came from a panel of three appellate judges, says that a 1993 ruling that allowed beach clubs to limit public access to a 15-foot swath close to the water where the public was not allowed to sit on sand, swim or fish, was not legitimate.
According to the Ledger story, by Mary Ann Spoto, "The state sued the beach clubs in 2006 seeking to revise the 1993 agreement to allow the public full use of the beach. Eight of the clubs settled, but the Sea Bright Beach Club held out, contending the wide beaches wouldn’t have been possible if the beach club hadn’t granted the easements.
"Superior Court Judge Thomas Cavanagh in 2010 voided the 1993 agreement and while this appeal was pending, the state and the beach club reached an interim pact giving the general public access to an 80-foot stretch on the club’s northernmost border."
The ruling, according to the Ledger story, said that Sea Bright Beach Club "severely" restricts public access to public property that it cannot claim as its own.
According to the Public Trust Doctrine, which sets access rule, the water belongs to everyone and that swath of beach closest to it, no matter where it is, can be traversed by the public.
The problem, over the years, has been how people get to that limited slice of waterfront sand without treading on private property. So, compromises, such as the one in 2010 have been struck.
But beach clubs have claimed ownership in that there are privately-owned and constructed structures, such as cabanas and other club facilities, in front of that beach area, much of which has been extended by state and federal beach replenishment programs.
Watefront property owners have erected stairs and platforms on sea walls, claiming that the structures are owned by them, so people cannot use them to access the beach. Parking has also been limited in some areas.
Public access rules have been cloudy since the state gave individual municipalities, after the 2006 ruling, power to interpret the law as they see fit. At one point, the state said that municipalities must provide access paths, with parking and bathrooms, at certain points.
Beachfront property owners balked at that and held onto the argument that traversing private property to get to the public water is not allowed.
According to the Ledger story, state Division of Law Director Christopher Porrino said that the Sea Bright Beach Club ruling was a win for the people that holds up the public's access rights, especially in light of the fact that public funds are used to replenish beaches.
It is not yet known if the beach club will appeal the ruling.
Patch will feature a story on the issue in the future.