By CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
The pier construction project undertaken by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association – which has had its share of controversy particularly because of its lower-cased “t’ design which some people find to be the shape of the Christian cross symbol – has received two notices of violation of waterfront permit conditions, according to the state Department of Environmental Protected.
Although the violation notice indicates “all unauthorized activities should cease immediately,” no stop-work order formally was issued and construction continues, according to Michael Badger, president of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, the Christian organization founded by Methodists. Badger says the targeted completion date still is set for December.
Issued Sept. 22 to Steve Colombo, association operations director, its most significant finding perhaps is that the project requires a permit under the provisions of the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act. Badger said when association officials first met with the DEP, a CAFRA permit was not deemed necessary. A waterfront development permit was needed, however, and was approved Feb. 17, 2022.
A secondary violation of CAFRA regulations – arising from a state -sponsored site inspection – relates to the inappropriate placement of timber matting and excavating and grading that disbursed 13,190 square feet of beach.That violation will be abated – that is, beach disturbances will be addressed after construction is completed, Badger said.
The waterfront development act violation of Coastal Zone Management rules indicated the camp meeting association failed – prior to site preparation – to record a conservation restriction for public access with the Office of the County Clerk.
Further, construction activities were not to occur between June 1 to Oct. 15, which was a mandated time-restricted span. The OGCMA made no secret, however, of its plans to begin immediately after Labor Day so as to have reconstruction completed before the new year. At Oceangrove.org, a series of webcams includes one aimed at the pier construction project in real time. The time restriction was put in place because of “sensitive plants’ on site. Specifically, the DEP was seeking to protect the seabeach also known as the seaside amaranth, which was listed as a “threatened species” by the federal government in 1993. Since then, it has experienced a resurgence; increasing by 91 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to one DEP survey.
In 2018 when a plant was discovered on an Ocean Grove dune, the association complied with regulations that called for the area to be protected by fence, Badger said. Such protection remains in place today although the plant has not been seen this year, he said. “”We continue to cordon off that portion of the dune where there had been seabeach amaranth.”
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is applying for an expedited CAFRA permit, Badger said. According to DEP spokeswoman, Caryn Shinski, the association also is seeking emergency authorization to erect a “cofferdam” to protect the project. According to an article posted by the Orion Marine Group, a cofferdam – which some people spell as two words – coffee dam – is a watertight enclosure pumped dry to permit construction work below the waterline typically used during bridge projects or when repairing ships. Such devices help protect work crews, materials and equipment as well as the completed project until the project is ready again to be exposed to water.
Badger said two heavy wooden planks have been added to accommodate the 50-foot crane that is installing pilings for the pier.
The violations could have been subject to daily fines until they were corrected or abated but fines were not assessed, officials said.
The notice of violation was signed by Robert H. Clark, region supervisor of the DEP’s bureau of Coastal and Land Use Compliance and Enforcement with copies to Janet Stewart and Joanne Davis of the DEP Coastal Permitting division, to Colleen Keller of the state division of Land Use Protection and an unnamed Neptune Township construction official.
For Ocean Grove resident Shane Martins, the last part of that sentence is problematic. An objector to the design of the pier and other issues arising out of the association’s ownership and management of the grove, he maintains that a local construction permit is required but Neptune does not want to exert authority over the project.
Township Business Administrator Gina LaPlaca informed him of the decision not to require local permits, he said. LaPlaca said the project was reviewed before officials determined it was subject to state and not local permits.
“I have spoken to the Construction Official who provided me two DCA memos stating that piers are not subject to local construction permit requirements under the Uniform Construction Code, unless the pier involves construction on the pier of a structure or the pier is acting as a retaining wall,” LaPlaca explained. “Neither of those circumstances apply here, and so the township has no jurisdiction under the Uniform Construction Code to require a construction permit.”
She explained that local zoning does not apply to structures extending over water. “We don’t require zoning permits for piers in Shark River Hills, or elsewhere along the Shark River or in Ocean Grove,” she said. “The Historic Preservation Commission is concerned with design elements to structures, not over water construction. Hence we have no local jurisdiction to demand permits. This is purely a state permit process which is why the state is enforcing the regulations with Notices of Violations.”
As for state reviews, Badger said the association is not being cavalier about the project.
“We have been responsive to the DEP,” Badger said. “We have received the violations and are being responsive to any concerns that are required in the notice.”
Martins, a member of the Neptune zoning board, said he has concerns about how welcoming the oceanfront cross will feel to visitors and year-round residents who are not religious. The issue could have been addressed by turning the lower-case t shape into a capital T, said Martins, a lawyer by profession.
“I have real concerns about having a 500-foot cross” on the oceanfront, Martins said. “I can’t put a 500-foot cross on my lawn,” he said, maintaining this refutes the argument that the association is a private entity.
He said the association has not been consistent in documents, sometimes referring to the beach as private and sometimes as public.
The reconstruction of the pier has been 10 years in the making. It largely was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
And as construction commenced, the camp meeting association had to address another issue: it seemed that some people objected to the shape of the pier replacement.
Badger has said the design and rendering have been up on the website for years and remains available for public review.. The project is fully funded through private donations – which also were announced as supporters were given the option to make donations for the America’s Treasure campaign. Martins disputes Badger’s contention that the design was known for years.
“The ENHANCE segment of the American Treasure fundraising campaign sought to raise $500k over a three- year period for the pier.,” Badger said. The OGCMA Board of Trustees authorized the remaining $750K from pre-existing financial reserves to attain the $1.3M.”
While work began after Labor Day, it was just upon that holiday that state Sen. Vin Gopal tweeted that residents had contacted him with concerns.
“Many residents of Ocean Grove have reached out to me concerned about the OGCMA’s potential construction of a cross-shaped pier,” his tweet reads. “I am strongly urging the CMA to meet with residents, hear their concerns (and) construct a pier that will be inclusive of all residents” of Ocean Grove and Neptune Township.”
Martins takes exception to Badger’s words.
“The reality is they have been hiding this because they didn’t want people to know,” he said.
The design of the new Ocean Grove pier has many practical advantages including more view length, more endpoints, more stability and more locations for emergency services equipment, Badger said. Before 2012, the pier had a private, members-only fishing clubhouse at the farthest end. The high metal fence on the pier blocked the general public, similar to other local piers. The new design resembles the design of the Steeplechase Pier that served for years in Coney Island, NY. The replacement will restore the pier by 500 feet, to its original length.
“While the design is highly functional, the shape of the pier can serve to remind people of the love and forgiveness God has for all people,” Badger has said. “The construction is taking place on the beach which is owned by the OGCMA. The big takeaway is that at a cost of $1.3 million and without government funding, the Camp Meeting Association is providing an opportunity for you to walk above the Atlantic Ocean free of charge. The OGCMA welcomes everyone to come.”