Behind the Scenes, Debate Over Fate of F-Cove Continues
Boaters' gathering place will not reopen this summer
Quietly, the battle lines are being drawn for what could be a very public debate over the fate of F-Cove, the once-popular boaters' gathering place in Barnegat Bay that was shut down by the federal government before this boating season began.
The cove, located north of the Mantoloking Bridge in Brick, could become the subject of a larger discussion over the role of the federal government, the definition of public waters and to what extent people should be able to access a site that historically has been open to the public – even if legally, it wasn't.
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service closed F-Cove and nearby T-Cove since the land surrounding both areas is part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge's manager, Virginia Rettig, said at the time that "recreation for recreation's sake" was not allowed in such a refuge, and any public use of the area had to be "wildlife dependent" and determined through a formal process.
That means activities such as bird watching, fishing or hunting would be appropriate, but not necessarily boating or swimming. Rettig said a legal analysis completed by the federal government showed the Fish and Wildlife Service not only owned the land, but the waterways of the coves as well, which provided the legal basis for the eventual shutdown.
Now, federal officials and local boaters are gearing up for the formal process which will determine what types of access should be allowed at the site. And the possibility of litigation is still on the table.
"It was our intent to already have filed litigation against Virginia Rettig and US Fish and Wildlife in federal court to challenge, and have reversed, what we believe is an unlawful closure of public waters," said Craig Thorner, a Brick resident who is leading a group of private citizens' charge to reopen access to the cove.
Thorner said he has already had a legal brief prepared challenging the federal government's standing in closing the waterways, which he argues are not federal property eligible to be barricaded off, but has preferred to see how the legal process of determining public access to the coves plays out.
"Given the fact that the public waters of the coves are adjacent to the wilderness refuge, and that beached boats would likely result in ongoing issues between boaters in the coves and US Fish and Wildlife, we feel at this time the better course of action is to wait for Virginia Rettig’s thoughtful proposal on how we can responsibly restore power boat access to the coves before the summer of 2013," he wrote in an e-mail to Brick Patch on Monday.
Some members of the public, including Thorner, along with township officials, met with Rettig last month to map out the legal process of eventually providing some form of public access.
"I wanted to provide them an opportunity to share some thoughts with me," Rettig said, adding the meeting covered public access to the sites in a "very, very general" way and stressing that no "negotiations" are taking place.
"Essentially, our position has always been that we're closing F-Cove and T-Cove, but the whole point is that we're going to review what wildlife-dependent opportunities we can provide the public," said Rettig.
That review process will likely kick off in the fall, when F-Cove and T-Cove will both be covered under an internal review of lands owned by the refuge. Rettig said public meetings will be scheduled to collect public comments on access.
"We are definitely going to be working more with the public and asking for input in a formal way," Rettig said. "At this point, it's about trying to collect good information."
After that process, probably around Christmas time, Rettig said, there may be some formal access plans on the table. Those plans could make use of various combinations of allowed activities at the coves.
"We could see, if we provide one use, how that might affect other uses," Rettig said.
In the mean time, Rettig confirmed, the coves will stay closed off to boaters. That means boaters hoping the bay's former hot spot may reopen before the temperatures dip this fall are out of luck.
Thorner, for his part, remains cautiously hopeful that powerboat access could be restored eventually.
"We are very hopeful, in light our meeting at Fish and Wildlife’s office in Galloway on June 22nd, that the forthcoming proposal will be acceptable," he said in his e-mail. "At that time we will immediately work with our town council so that boaters can responsibly enjoy the beauty of the coves once again."
Thorner has helped start a website that he says will chronicle efforts to restore access to the coves.
F-Cove, located adjacent to the Traders Cove Marina site, was at one time slated to become a residential lagoon community. Since plans to develop the area fell through, it has been a popular party spot for boaters, who normally beached their boats along the lagoons.