Jersey Shore town illegally hiked beachfront parking fees to pay for post-Sandy repairs
An appellate panel ruled Monday that Belmar officials had violated an ancient legal principal and current state law on public beach access when the borough doubled beachfront parking fees and used beach funds to pay for non-beach expenses.
And in what was hailed as a milestone that would help fund future lawsuits to protect beach access, the panel further ruled that the plaintiffs were entitled to attorney’s fees in the case.
“The record supports the trial court’s findings that doubling the parking fees in order to raise general revenues for the Borough imposed an unreasonable beach fee on users of the beach,” read Monday’s decision by a three-judge panel in the Appellate Division of Superior Court.
“Plaintiffs are entitled to counsel fees,” added the decision, which involved the so-called Public Trust Doctrine dating to Roman times, and to the beach access statute largely derived from it.
The ruling upheld key provisions of a Monmouth County trial judge’s 2016 decision in litigation asserting that borough’s mayor at the time and supporters on the council, improperly used beach badge fees to pay for non-beach related expenses including litigation and reconstruction of a pavilion located near the beach but used for other purposes.
The plaintiffs also contended that doubling the beachfront parking fee, which is divided between beach-related and non-beach related expenses, essentially targeted non-residents as revenue sources.
Among its rulings, the panel upheld Judge Katie Gummer’s decision to overturn Belmar’s doubling of its beachfront parking fee to $2, when she reset the fee at an even dollar.
Kenneth Pringle, who was mayor of Belmar from 1990 to 2010 and served as the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said the ruling would help insure non-residents have the same access to municipal beaches as residents, and that beach fees would be used properly, for beach-related purposes only.
The panel agreed with the judge in finding that the beach parking fee was essentially a beach access fee, and that the parking fee hike constituted a violation of the Civil Rights Act, thus entitling the plaintiffs to attorney’s fees.
With that portion of the ruling, Pringle said, the appellate panel — like the trial judge before it — helped to insure that competent lawyers could be retained to argue on behalf of beach access.
“We won an extremely important victory,” Pringle said. “It was a big win that the court did expend the coverage of the Civil Rights Act to the beach fees.”
The mayor at the time the original suit was filed and when the trial judge issued her ruling was Matt Doherty, who left office last summer after being named by Gov. Phil Murphy to head the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in Atlantic City, which promotes economic activity in that beachfront town.
Read full article . . .