NEPTUNE – The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association closes access to the beach from the boardwalk on Sunday mornings in the summer, believing it provides a “quality-of-life benefit” to the community.
According to the state, they don’t have the right to do that. But the association is not backing down.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Coastal and Land Use Compliance and Enforcement sent a warning letter to the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association informing it that the Sunday morning closures of the beach violates state regulations regarding beach access to sand and surf.
The letter states that the association “cannot limit vertical or horizontal public access to any dry sand beach area” under its permits with the department.
On Sunday mornings, the public is not allowed access from the boardwalk to the beach in Ocean Grove, which is owned by the camp meeting association, until noon. Chains are used to keep the public from accessing the beach. A compliance check was done on Aug. 7, according to the letter.
The association founded and owns the unincorporated community, located within Neptune Township. It was created in 1869 by Methodist clergymen and is noted for its Victorian-style homes and the Great Auditorium, which frequently attracts religious gatherings. It is commonly known by the nickname “God’s Square Mile.”
All the property in Ocean Grove is owned by the association except for the streets. Homeowners here actually lease the land on which their homes sit. In the past, the association had police powers like any other municipality, forbidding vehicular traffic on Sundays, but a 1979 state Supreme Court decision changed that.
Michael Badger, president of the camp meeting association, responded to the DEP’s warning, saying the association has the right to close off access from the boardwalk, which he said does not cut off access to the beach entirely.
“The purpose of the closure is non-exclusionary,” Badger wrote to the DEP in response. “The outcome of the step closure enhances religious and secular quality-of-life experiences in Ocean Grove, which society recognizes as valuable. During this 0.5% of the year, the view of the ocean from the OGCMA’s boardwalk and pier is of sublime natural beauty without the visual elements of beach umbrellas, tents and masses of people.”
Badger told the Asbury Park Press that the association has had a positive long-term relationship with the DEP.
“The beach is visible 100% of the year, which is an important component of the public trust doctrine,” he said, “and 100% of the year it has been accessible parallel to the water, from Asbury Park and Bradley Beach. It is only a half-mile long beach.
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“The Sunday closures are only for 15 Sundays,” Badger said. “It is 45 hours a year. It just creates an improved quality of life, whether you approach that from a secular or religious standpoint. It creates the charming atmosphere that contributes to the character of Ocean Grove.”
He pointed out “that there are other private beaches in New Jersey that close,” such as Jenkinson’s in Point Pleasant Beach.
“I just feel that the Camp Meeting’s regulations are within the scope of what is permissible in order to enhance the environment and the quality of life,” Badger said.
That argument has not convinced Neptune United, a community advocacy organization which has clashed with the camp meeting association before.
“Ensuring the rights of the public is one of the main responsibilities of local government. It is time for Neptune Township officials to fulfill their obligations to our community and stop the Camp Meeting’s infringement on our right to access the beach, as is required by law,” said Shane Martins, one of the founders of Neptune United.
Martins told the Asbury Park Press that subsequent to the receipt of the state DEP warning, on Aug. 13, the association again had every entrance to the beach locked off with metal chains.
“On that day, an 84-year-old disabled woman asked the ‘guard’ to unlock the chain so that she could safely access the beach via the ramp entrance. The (association) refused. The police were called to report this ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) violation. Unfortunately … the police officer refused to request that the OGCMA unlock the padlock to allow the disabled woman access,” Martins said.
The following week, on Aug. 20, residents again asked to unlock the padlock. When the association refused, Neptune United handed them a copy of the warning letter, Martins said.
“The (association) still refused. Again, the police were called and a kind officer arrived approximately 25 minutes later. Unfortunately, even with the warning in his hand, the officer said there was nothing he could do because his supervisors had instructed him that the police ‘need to remain neutral’ and that he had no way of knowing whether the warning was legitimate or fake. After a 15-minute discussion, the officer asked the (association) to unlock the padlocks. The (association) refused,” Martins said.
Martins has criticized the association before, accusing it of “ushering in radical Christian nationalism.” He has cited the fact that Ocean Grove issues beach badges featuring a cross and recently built a cross-shaped pier that juts out into the ocean.
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The association’s rationale for the Sunday morning beach closures was explained further in a letter sent to the Press.
“Since 1869, The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) has owned, operated and maintained a half-mile of beachfront on the Atlantic Ocean,” the letter argues. “Ownership was expanded in 1887 when the OGCMA purchased 1,000 feet from the high tide line into the Atlantic from the State of New Jersey, signed by the governor and Riparian Commissioners. It is not new that the entrances to the dry upland beach are closed starting on Sunday mornings.”
Neptune Township Attorney Gene Anthony previously told the Asbury Park Press that Ocean Grove, along with its beach and boardwalk, are “unique properties.”
The boardwalk, Anthony said, is privately owned, but it has a public easement like a public street.
“The beach is privately owned, so the camp meeting association can regulate who goes on the beach as long as it is not discriminatory, as long as it does not violate the U.S. Constitution,” Anthony said.
Charles Daye is the metro reporter for Asbury Park and Neptune, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. @CharlesDayeAPP Contact him: CDaye@gannettnj.com