Toms River recent received one important easement which would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin its beach and dune building project along the township’s stretch of Ocean County’s northern barrier island. It came from the borough of Seaside Heights.
“We have authorized this at the request of Toms River,” said Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz, explaining that Seaside Heights owns a portion of oceanfront that, technically, falls under the jurisdiction of its neighbor to the north.
Unfortunately, in a sea re-dos, the Seaside Heights easement has been one of the easy ones. In August, the Army Corps rejected 16 major easements within Toms River due to supplemental language the township added, mainly to explicitly indicate that no restrooms, boardwalks or other public amenities would ever be built on the slivers of sand that make up the dune line.
“We never dealt with the Army Corps of Engineers, we only dealt with the [state] DEP” in obtaining the easements, Kelaher said.
What has largely gone unreported is why the extra language added by the local government was rejected by the federal government.
“They said the signed agreements looked like the people signed under some sort of duress,” Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher said. “I’ve been a lawyer since 1960 and I just can’t fathom where they got off saying something like that.”
Though puzzling to township officials, the Army Corps provided new language they found acceptable and ordered that each easement document be re-signed. Though 16 easements does not sound like a large number, most of them represented thousands of collective signatures made up of members of homeowners associations that own beach access points north of the Ortley Beach section.
“Most of the officers in these homeowners associations don’t have the authority to sign these things themselves without authorization from their members,” said Kelaher.
That presented additional problems, as many associations only hold meetings once or twice a year, either on Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend. Aside from the logistical issue, the Army Corps’ rejection of the easement has ruffled feathers within the communities themselves, sometimes re-igniting opposition to the project. Years of work convincing association members that the project was worthwhile – and that their private beaches wouldn’t, somehow, be turned into boardwalks – was down the drain.
“There was a lot of arm wrestling, and there was a lot of arguing with their attorneys,” recalled Kelaher.
The Toms River mayor is now hoping that, in the absence of signatures on the revised documents, condemnations can begin in Ocean County on the plots of land where the dunes will be built. Recently, DEP officials told Shorebeat that they should begin within the next several weeks.
“They are not going to permit an interruption, because if there’s a break in the berm line, it defeats the purpose,” said Kelaher.