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NJ Appellate Court Decides Beach Access Case in Sea Bright, NJ

On September 28, 2012, the Appellate Division rendered a decision in Chiesa v. D. Lobi Enterprises, Inc., relying extensively upon the seminal 2005 beach access case, Raleigh Avenue Beach Ass’n v. Atlantis Beach Club, Inc., 185 N.J. 40 (2005), argued by Lieberman & Blecher’s own Stuart Lieberman. Raleigh Avenue Beach Ass’n held that upland sand beach owned by a private club is required to be made available to the public under the public trust doctrine.

In 1993, in anticipation of a major beach replenishment project to restore rapidly eroding sand beaches along the Atlantic Ocean shoreline, the Sea Bright Beach Club granted a temporary construction easement to the State of New Jersey to enter its property “to pump, place, transport and spread sand beach fill” on its property. The Club also granted “a continuing easement for the purpose of conducting periodic beach nourishment” during the projected life of the project, and “a perpetual easement for a right of limited public access” limited to pedestrian right of transit and fishing, the later activity subject to reasonable restrictions by the Club.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Raleigh Avenue Beach Ass’n, the State of New Jersey filed a complaint against nine beach clubs, including the Sea Bright Beach Club and the Borough of Sea Bright, seeking reformation of the 1993 Agreements. Following extensive mediation, all defendants but the Sea Bright Beach Club settled. Following cross-motions for summary judgment, the Trial Court found that most of the Club’s ocean frontage was ungranted State tidelands but denied summary judgment on the issue of remedy. The Trial Court ultimately granted summary judgment concluding that 1993 Agreement was void.

Arguing that the State was equitably estopped from seeking reformation of the 1993 Agreement, the Club contended before the Appellate Division that the Trial Court judgment should be reversed. The Appellate Division found that the centerpiece of the analysis is the public trust doctrine, which provides “that all of the land covered by tidal water belongs to the [State] held in trust for the property to use.” Raleigh Avenue Beach Ass’n, 185 N.J. at 51-52. In Matthews v. Bay Head Improvement Ass’n, 95 N.J. 306, 323-24, cert. denied, 469 U.S. 821 (1984), the Court noted that the right to swim below the mean high water mark may be frustrated without a right to cross the upland dry beach. In applying this principle to the public claim of access to the privately-owned Atlantis Beach in Raleigh Avenue Beach Ass’n, the Supreme Court found that the general public had a right to use upland dry sand of the private beach club pursuant to the public trust doctrine.

Utilizing this reasoning, the Appellate Division in this matter held that the provision granting only limited public access to the dry upland beach area controlled by the Club is contrary to public interest and unenforceable. The matter was ultimately remanded for further proceedings to address the appropriate remedy.

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