New Jersey Coastal Property Owners’ Rights Upheld
Scoring a victory for property owners, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently confirmed the necessity of balancing the public’s access to the sea and the rights of coastal property owners.
In a February 1, 2013 decision in Ritter v Harbor Commission of Atlantic Highlands (“Commission”) the court ruled against Ritter affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the Commission.
The Commission is a utility of the Borough of Atlantic Highlands. It operates the largest municipal marina in the State of New Jersey with a broad variety of services. The marina features many “for fee” services such as a launch ramp, dock slips primarily for power boats and a mooring field for sail boats. The marina’s other customers include a daily ferry commuter service to New York, head boat and charter fishing boats. It has many public facilities including a free parking lot, waterfront promenade and a public fishing pier. The Commission pays an annual license fee to the State’s Tidelands Resource Council for its privileges to occupy lands beneath the sea for its sail boat mooring field.
Ritter, a disgruntled former customer of the Commission, sought to enjoy the benefits of the Commission’s sail boat customers without contracting for the same. Ritter sought from the Commission a variety of individual services included as a “package” to its customers such as sail boat mooring privileges, launch access, dinghy storage, etc. When the Commission refused to agree, Ritter brought a lawsuit against the Commission alleging that his rights as a member of the public under the public trust doctrine were violated.
Relying on the 1984 Matthews v Bay Head Improvement Association New Jersey Supreme court decision, the Appellate Division ruled that “[t]he public interest is satisfied so long as there’s reasonable access to the sea.” “This does not mean that the public has an unrestricted right to cross over any and all property bordering on the common property.”
In the Matthews’ decision, the Supreme Court opined that, “Where the parties are unable to agree as to the application of the principles enunciated herein, the claim of the private property owner shall be honored until the contrary is established.”
In the Ritter decision, the Appellate Division acknowledged that the Borough of Atlantic Highlands provided the general public free access to the sea at other facilities in different coastal locations. The fact that it was desirable or more convenient to Ritter to access the public marina was not determinative.
Under Governor Christie’s administration, the NJ DEP adopted more reasonable public access regulations than the onerous ones proposed by the prior administration. The Corzine administration’s proposed public access regulations threatened the sanctity of residential homeowners’ privacy and threatened to compromise the security of marinas and industrial facilities.
Let’s hope that the State and its courts continue to reach common sense decisions using moderation to balance competing rights.