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December 25, 2007

Lawsuit ripples community lake

By Tristan J. Schweiger
TOMS RIVER BUREAU

Dredging, maintenance remain contentious issues

POINT PLEASANT BEACH — More than a year after a citizens group filed suit in Superior Court in Toms River seeking to force the borough to dredge Lake of the Lillies, maintenance of the lake remains a contentious issue here.

Members of the group Save Lake of the Lillies say they hope the new mayor and council members taking office next month will press to quickly rehabilitate the lake, which they say has been filling with runoff material and pollutants for years. They charge that, while local officials in previous years have acknowledged the lake needs to be dredged, they have failed to act on the lake's condition for years.

"When the lake is dredged, they're not getting any more money in their pockets," Stuart J. Lieberman, an attorney representing Save Lake of the Lillies, said of the group. "Nothing happens other than they're doing something for the environment."

Lieberman was in court last week arguing the case before Superior Court Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso.

From an average depth of five or six feet decades ago, the lake now measures one foot or less, resulting in the loss of many species of aquatic life that once lived there, the group contends. The suit also argues the town has a legal obligation to dredge the lake. Its deed, which a private citizen willed to the borough, requires the town maintain the lake "insofar as possible."

However, the town says it intends to dredge the lake. The problem is securing the millions of dollars it will take to complete such a project, borough officials say.

Additionally, the borough argues the Save Lake of the Lillies group wants the town to show preference to that particular lake rather than to other lakes in town. The borough has targeted Lake Louise for a dredging project.

"It is not for this court, respectfully, to tell the borough they should have looked first to Lake of the Lillies instead of Lake Louise," Sean Gertner, an attorney for Point Pleasant Beach argued in court Friday.

The lawsuit has been contentious among the people living around the lake as well. While some support the Save Lake of the Lillies group, others argue the lawsuit hampered dialogue between residents and the borough government.

Furthermore, Save Lake of the Lillies wants to prevent the borough - at least until the dredging is completed - from removing reeds called phragmites australis, which the group contends provides shelter for wildlife and helps prevent erosion. Other residents, though, view the plants as a menace, citing the view of some scientists that they're an invasive, harmful species.

"It kills all the native plants that the wildlife feeds off of," said Craig Jones, 50, of St. Louis Avenue.

Yet Ed Donoghue, 68, a Save Lake of the Lillies member who lives on Baltimore Avenue, said the phragmites have grown so much because of the condition of the lake.

"They can only grow in really shallow water, and number two, there's so many pollutants in the water it's like fertilizer," he said.

Vincent R. Barrella, who becomes mayor next month, said dredging the town's lakes was a focus of his campaign. But he also noted such work is highly expensive and said he wants the borough to pressure the state for money to undertake the project.

Much of the runoff choking the lake comes from storm water drainage of state roads such as Route 35, Barrella said.

"We'd love to see it done," Barrella said. "You can't just go out there with a shovel and a bucket and start taking it out."

Tristan J. Schweiger: (732) 557-5734 or tschweiger@app.com