It sounds like a pitch from the game show “Let’s Make A Deal”: How about swapping 1.37 acres of prime public beachfront on the Atlantic Ocean for an antique carousel, a parking lot and 67 acres of inaccessible wetlands?
As crazy as it might sound, this deal-making is for real.
For possibly the first time in New Jersey history, a deal to trade away a public beach has been made between the state, a town and a private developer. That approval is now under appeal.
On June 30, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recommended to the State House Commission an application by the Borough of Seaside Heights to allow the diversion of the public beach. The State House Commission approved the application.
If the decision stands, Seaside Heights will trade the beach to a private developer who owns Casino Pier. The developer is seeking more beachfront land in order to rebuild its popular amusement pier over sand instead of water.
In exchange for the 1.37 acres of beach, Seaside Heights would get a 100-year-old carousel and a small parking lot adjacent to the boardwalk. In addition, 67 acres of county-owned wetlands in neighboring Toms River would receive Green Acres protection.
If this deal sounds fishy, that’s because it is.
New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the American Littoral Society jointly filed a lawsuit on August 12 challenging the legality of this swap.
Here’s why: The Department of Environmental Protection does not have the legal authority to trade recreational parkland for personal property, such as a carousel. The agency erroneously construed its ability to "preserve historic areas" to include antiques.
Even if trading public land for personal property was legal, the trade is far from even. It’s a windfall for the owners of Casino Pier and a terrible deal for the beach-going public!
As Will Rogers once observed about land – “they aren’t making any more of it.” Beachfront land in New Jersey is truly irreplaceable. A parcel of 1.37 acres may not sound huge, but it is prime real estate and a major recreational asset. For decades of hot summer days, this slice of sand has accommodated thousands of beachgoers.
The “replacement” land in Toms River is not of equal value from economic, recreation or ecological perspectives. It’s mostly stream buffer and riparian corridor next to a highway. In addition to being largely inaccessible, most of the year it’s too wet to walk in. The public would get no additional ecological benefit from having it included in the swap.
Yes, the 100-year-old carousel is “nostalgic,” as Seaside Heights described it. But the Green Acres Program is in the business of permanently preserving lands for the public, not trading them away for antiques, as lovely as this carousel may be.
Let’s hope the court agrees. Allowing this deal to proceed would compromise the integrity of the Green Acres program and the public trust. It would send an unfortunate signal to developers that any piece of public land can be bartered away for lesser value land and antiques.
For more information, go to http://njconservation.org/docs/Seaside-Heights-Beach-Diversion-Appeal.pdf.
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