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05.29.24

More Details on the Ocean Grove Legal Situation

The Surfrider Foundation’s Jersey Shore Chapter is celebrating good news in the ongoing fight for public beach access rights in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Last week, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) denied a request by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) to continue their long-standing practice of restricting public beach access while they await the outcome of an administrative appeal. This latest news comes after OGCMA removed the public beach access restrictions from their website earlier this month.


OGCMA—a Christian organization that owns property along the coast—has, for over a hundred years, closed more than a half-mile stretch of beautiful beach between 9:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In October of last year, DEP issued an Administrative Order, requiring OGCMA to cease its use of chain and padlock barriers to restrict beach access during these hours. If OGCMA does not comply with the order, it could face up to $25,000 per day in fines.


OGCMA has appealed DEP’s order, and the matter is currently scheduled for a status conference before an Administrative Law Judge on September 4, 2024. However, in the meantime, OGCMA sought to stay the enforcement of the order until after the administrative appeals process is concluded. To be granted a stay of the DEP order to open its beach, OGCMA had to prove three things: (1) it had a reasonable probability of winning the appeal, (2) it would suffer irreparable harm if the stay were not granted, and (3) the public interest favors a stay. According to the DEP’s Order Denying Stay, OGCMA failed to provide sufficient evidence to support any of these assertions.


The decision concluded that OGCMA’s appeal is unlikely to succeed. OGCMA argued that DEP’s order constituted a “take” of their private property, but since New Jersey’s Public Trust Doctrine grants public access to all tidal waters and adjacent shorelines, the property has always been subject to public access; therefore, nothing is taken by requiring rightful public access. OGCMA also argued that the impact of the closure was minimal because it only applied to a very small number of hours relative to the total number of hours the beach was open to the public. The decision importantly recognized that in New Jersey, summer weekend mornings are some of the most popular and precious beach-going times, making these closures particularly harmful to the public. Finally, OGCMA argued that the order violates their constitutional right to free exercise of religion. However, public beach access does not discriminate against any particular religion, and OGCMA has failed to show how opening the beach to the public would interfere with their religious practices, particularly since, as the decision describes, the OGCMA Sunday religious service is held in a small gazebo on the boardwalk and not on the beach.


The DEP was also unconvinced by OGCMA’s argument that it would suffer irreparable harm if the stay were not granted. OGCMA argued that allowing public access would interfere with their property rights and quiet enjoyment on “the Lord’s Day.” The decision rejected this, pointing out that OGCMA had it backwards and that restricting public access interferes with the public’s existing right to the beach property and the public’s right to quiet enjoyment under the Public Trust Doctrine. Finally, the DEP concluded that the public interest weighs against the stay, since the public’s interest in unrestricted beach access clearly outweighs any hardships that OGCMA alleges.


The Jersey Shore Chapter has been closely supporting local residents and the community group Neptune United since they began speaking out against the beach closures in the summer of 2023, alerting the public and DEP to the situation. “Surfrider Foundation is proud to collaborate with Neptune United and others that have the courage to speak out for inclusive, positive change which returns ownership of beach access rights to the public,” stated Jeffrey Ross Williams, Legislative Director for Surfrider Foundation’s Jersey Shore chapter. “Too many beachfront property owners in New Jersey usurp the public’s rights for personal benefit. Those days are over, and this decision restores power to the people to ensure beach access along all 120 miles of NJ beaches. Seeing hundreds of beachgoers walk down the stairs to the beach, lifeguards on duty, and excitement filling the air on the first summer Sunday in 155 years in Ocean Grove was a true miracle,” said Williams.


OGCMA can still appeal the Commissioner’s Order Denying Stay, but for the time being, the beach will be open to the public on Sunday mornings. Once the Administrative Law Judge makes an initial decision in the case, the case will be submitted to the DEP Commissioner who can accept, modify, or reject the initial decision. This means that Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, who authored this decision, will have the final say in the case. If his latest order is any indication, Ocean Grove residents and visitors alike can look forward to spending more time enjoying the beach on summer Sundays.