Though Brick officials have pledged the status quo will remain along the township's oceanfront, homeowners at a meeting Saturday said they have concerns over preserving private beach access as well as the lack of an established dune line in a proposed beach replenishment plan.
In order for the project – which is primarily funded by the federal government – to move forward, oceanfront residents and beach associations would have to sign easements to allow the dunes to be built and maintained partially on private property.
The state has set an April 1 deadline for easements to be signed, while Rep. Jon Runyan's office has set a federal deadline of May 1.
"I do not want to put Ferris wheels or boardwalks behind anyone's house," Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis told more than 100 residents at the meeting. "I don't want more beaches. We have three beaches and that's enough. I don't want to take anyone's private beach."
Township attorney Jean Cipriani said the easements entitle public officials to access private property only for the scope of the dune renourishment project itself, so the prospect of using the documentation as license to build a boardwalk, restrooms or parking lots is out of the question.
"The Army Corps has confirmed through their project engineer that the public access that would be constructed is only to replace the exact access points that exist now," said Cipriani.
But some residents have doubts.
Homeowner Ed Pilot, as well as many others at the meeting, pointed to a subsection of the easement that states one of the goals of the project is to "implement the Public Trust Doctrine and ensure permanent public access, use and enjoyment of the beach and ocean."
"What's to prevent the DEP to come in after the project is finished and sue everyone to allow public access to their beach?" asked Pilot.
Attorney John Paul Doyle, representing 14 homeowners, also pointed to the public acces language, asking whether the easement – the boundaries of which are not technically defined yet in Brick – could mean private streets would be opened for public parking.
Cipriani said the easement is "limited by the project area," meaning the dune renourishment project itself.
Though some residents at the meeting claimed the section on the public trust doctrine – a legal principle that maintains certain lands are held in trust for the use of the public – was not present in earlier versions of coastal easements, a check of public records by Patch found that easement agreements in Long Beach Township and Mantoloking going back to 2007 included the same language.
In Long Beach Township, Surf City and Harvey Cedars, public access points did not change since replenishment projects were completed there, nor were showers, parking lots or other amenities constructed.
Acropolis said even advocates for more public beach access have been largely satisfied by Brick's current access level.
"There is a group of people around here where that's all they do - sue for public access," he said. "They've never sued Brick Township."
Cipriani said the state Department of Environmental Protection will not allow changes to be made to the easement document itself, though the township may be able to add a supplemental section explaining its position on certain issues.
Acropolis said eventually, the debate over whether to sign easements may be ended by legislation.
"There is a deadline, and it will move forward," said Acropolis. "I would much rather have input at the local level with you than have someone in Trenton set the policy as for what should happen."
Legislation that would empower municipalities or the state to condemn the easement areas and factor in the added value of the project to reduce payouts to homeowners is pending, and Gov. Chris Christie has come out strongly in favor of the replenishment project.
Acropolis also spoke of the need for replenishment to protect all of Brick's residents, including those on neighboring streets on the barrier island as well as those across the bay.
"Most of the professionals believe that if the breach [in Mantoloking] hadn't happened, most of the homes on the mainland would not have flooded," the mayor said.