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Ocean Grove Sunday Morning Beach Closures Update

Since late summer, the Surfrider Foundation has been closely monitoring beach closures in Ocean Grove, NJ. We want to keep our members informed about recent legal developments in this important New Jersey beach access rights case. Check out our September 26, 2023 blog for further background information.

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.

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 regulations.

On October 2, 2023, the OGCMA sued two local resident beachgoers in a civil lawsuit in Monmouth County Superior Court (Court). The two residents 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 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, it appears that the OGCMA will first seek 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. 

Although this is great news and we at Surfrider applaud the State for sending a strong signal that NJ beach access rights are a priority, we do not think this is the end of this saga. NJ DEP should fully enforce the public trust doctrine in Ocean Grove and deny any request for a special exception allowing summer Sunday morning beach closures.  We will continue to monitor the situation, and any other beach access issues in New Jersey.  Please notify us of any beach access issues preventing reasonable use of the beaches and tidal areas in New Jersey.