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05.17.24

Ocean Grove Ends Sunday Morning Beach Closures

In an apparent win for New Jersey beach access, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) has changed their beach regulations, ending a policy of summer Sunday morning beach closures. 

The OGCMA's apparent rule reversal, which is now reflected on the Association's website, is a huge win for the rights of New Jersey beach goers to enjoy our beautiful beaches during prime summer weekends, and comes just in time for the start of the Jersey Shore summer season and the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

"The sand and ocean do not discriminate on the basis of religion or other factors," said Jeffrey Williams, Legislative Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation Jersey Shore Chapter, "and the public's access to the beaches of New Jersey must be open for all to enjoy, particularly during our short summer season when weekends are meant to be spent on the beach."

For decades--and despite public outcry--the OGCMA has not allowed access to the beach before noon on Sundays from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, chaining and locking all beach access stairways.​ The OGCMA has defended its ban on beach access on the basis that Sundays are “the Lord’s Day.” According to the State however, there is no exception for these types of closures in New Jersey beach access statutes and regulations.

This fight for beach access has been brewing since 2023, when Ocean Grove residents took action to open their long closed beaches on Sunday mornings, through peaceful attempts to access the beach at those times.

On October 2, 2023, the OGCMA sued two of those beachgoers in a civil lawsuit in Monmouth County Superior Court (Court). The two are active in a local community group, Neptune United, which has advocated for the OGCMA to fully comply with NJ beach access laws and open the beaches on Sunday mornings. 

The lawsuit accused these persons of “disruptive behavior” and “trespassing on private property,” and sought an injunction against them to prevent further (first amendment protected) criticism against the OGCMA’s policies. Moreover, the lawsuit asked the Court to approve OGCMA’s Sunday beach closures. 

On October 12, 2023, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) issued an Administrative Order (Order) to the OGCMA, finding that the OGCMA’s continued closure of Ocean Grove beach on summer Sunday mornings violates State law and is in breach of the OGCMA’s State issued permits to ensure public beach access to the full extent of NJ law. The Order further stated that OGCMA can be charged a civil penalty of up to $25,000 per day for noncompliance with the Order.

The Order stated that: “The Permittee [OGCMA] cannot limit vertical or horizontal public access to any dry sand beach area…nor interfere with the public's right to free use of the dry sand for intermittent recreational purposes connected with the ocean and wet sand.

On October 13, 2023, the New Jersey Attorney General additionally informed the Court that the NJDEP would intervene as a party in the OGCMA lawsuit. 

On November 19, 2023 the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) abruptly withdrew its lawsuit against the Neptune United members “without prejudice” (which means they reserve the right to file it again in the future). Instead, the OGCMA sought to amend their Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) permits through the NJ administrative court system. OGCMA’s current CAFRA permits, which are issued by the State for beach operations, facilities, and management, do not include language supporting the summer Sunday beach closures. 

According to published reports, the OGCMA was scheduled to start an administrative hearing challenging the NJDEP order this spring, and was reportedly scheduled for May 16th.  It is possible that ending Sunday morning beach closures may be related to a resolution of this legal proceeding. The NJDEP’s strong action, supported by the N.J. Attorney General, to initiate enforcement of state beach access laws without regard to religious affiliation also deserves credit for the apparent final end of this long restriction on the public’s beach access rights.

“Neptune United is proud to have championed the issue of Sunday morning beach access in Ocean Grove,” said Shane Martins, cofounder and president of the group. “Neptune United would like to thank the NJDEP and the Surfrider Foundation for its continued commitment to fairness, inclusiveness, and protecting the rights of the public. This result is another reminder that progress and positive change that benefits all people is always possible.”

For context, Ocean Grove is a neighborhood of Neptune Township in Monmouth County that began as a Christian “camp meeting” in the late 1800s. Through a special charter with Monmouth County, it operates largely independently as the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA). Neptune Township remains responsible for all health, safety, law enforcement, and other services in Ocean Grove as the governing municipal authority.