Why environmentalists oppose the Seaside Heights land swap

Two prominent conservation groups are challenging the transfer of more than an acre of public beachfront property to a private developer to rebuild an amusement park in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. 

If allowed to go through, it would mark a rare instance in which public recreational lands set aside with Green Acres money would be disposed of, according to the plaintiffs, who are contesting the deal in a lawsuit in the state appellate division.

The project won approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection earlier this spring and from the State House Commission in June despite opposition from the American Littoral Society and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which filed the appeal this past Friday.

The case is the latest legal challenge filed by environmentalists against the DEP, which has angered conservationists by taking actions that they view as having fallen short of protecting the state’s natural resources. Nevertheless, the project is seen by some as a vital economic spur to one of the state’s most popular beach destinations.

How the land swap works

In this case, the challengers are seeking to overturn the transfer of 1.37 acres of public beach owned by the borough of Seaside Heights to the owners of Casino Pier, to rebuild their oceanfront property, badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

In exchange for the lost beach, Seaside Heights is to receive a century-old carousel, small parking lot, and 67 acres of inexpensive wetlands valued at $4,100 per acre, opponents of the deal said. The beach parcel is worth millions of dollars, they argued.

Public beach for private developer

“This is the first time any of us can remember a recreational, public beach being traded away to a private developer,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “The Green Acres program is intended to preserve such natural resources and recreational opportunities for everyone, not to place them in the hands of private developers.’’

The DEP declined to comment on the lawsuit, but in speaking before the State House Commission in Trenton officials defended the deal, particularly the value of preserving the carousel. Judeth Yeany, bureau chief of the Green Acres program, described it as a “$2 million irreplaceable historic asset that was in danger of being lost to the public.’’

But Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said the program is sending a signal to developers “that privately owned, nostalgic things and inexpensive, regulated wetlands can be used to remove expensive, critical recreational parkland from the public trust.’’

The legal argument against the deal

In its filings, the plaintiffs argued the “DEP has no authority to trade recreational parkland for personal property, but erroneously construed its ability ‘to preserve historic areas’ to enable it to do so.’’

Green Acres rules say public land diversions require replacement with property of similar usefulness, recreational value, economic or natural resource value. In this instance, the swap would exclusively benefit a private developer, according to the conservationists.

The DEP also claimed the amount of beach available to the public will not change when the project is completed. Borough officials also noted the beachfront is expected to expand by 22 acres once the Army Corps of Engineers completes a beach replenishment project.

“At least for a few years,’’ replied Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a member of the commission, referring to the perpetual erosion occurring along the state’s coastline. “Mother Nature is not always kind about these things.’’ The commission approved the transfer with Smith abstaining.

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NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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