LOWER TOWNSHIP, N.J. — At first, it was a place for fishermen to wash the flounder guts off, a simple building with priceless sunsets, on the shores of the Delaware Bay.
The Sunset Beach Sportsmen’s Club has been around for nearly 80 years, and in all those decades, the membership has grown from a few fishermen from Philadelphia to 160 . The small, beige building’s become part of the scenery at Sunset Beach too, much like the nearby World War II lookout tower and the concrete ship. For members, it’s been a place to host birthdays and wakes, to watch Eagles games and plan fund-raisers. On Thanksgiving, they feed turkey dinners to young Coast Guard “coasties” who couldn’t get home for the holiday.
And now, longtime members and newer ones fear the club’s sunsets are numbered.
In February, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection served the club a 90-day eviction notice. The club owns the building and has paid taxes to Lower Township since 1957. The state purchased the land the building sat on in 1999, and allowed the club to remain active. That changed with the eviction notice.
“They just want us out,” said Ed Clavan, the club’s president.
The state, in a Feb. 1 letter it sent to Clavan contends the club obtained a liquor license for its small, members-only bar — it is self-service — without permission. The DEP also contends that the club’s use of the premises is “inconsistent with the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s mission to preserve, conserve, and protect the land as habitat for game, nongame, and threatened and endangered species of wildlife and for wildlife recreational opportunities.”
The club, a nonprofit, sits just feet from a long-established gift shop, which is owned by a member. A miniature golf course sits across the parking lot. Long before tourists flocked to Sunset Beach, a magnesite brick plant took up most of the open space there. The plant, which leased land to the club, closed in 1982. The DEP, in its letter, said it purchased the land from the plant owners in 1999.
“The state thinks that it’s on state land, obviously,” said Christopher Gillin-Schwartz, an attorney and club member.
A DEP spokesperson declined to comment on the situation, citing the litigation. Gillin-Schwartz said the club’s plan, for now, is simply to stay open. The club has not been served a formal complaint, but the state has raised objections to the club’s liquor license renewal in Lower Township.
“It’s an effort to squeeze the vise on the club,” he said.
Clavan said the club has had a liquor license since 1976 with no problems. The only time police came, he said, was when a member had a heart attack.
“It’s an honor system at the bar,” he said.
Emaleigh Kaithern, one of the club’s youngest members at 29, spearheaded a Change.org petition to get the DEP to reconsider its approach. The petition has over 1,100 signatures.
Kaithern said she first visited the club for a Toys for Tots motorcycle run with her father when she was 5. Now the membership chairperson, Kaithern said she wants to secure that legacy for future members.
“I joined because my father was a member,” she said.
Larry Hume, a club member and owner of the popular Sunset Beach Gifts next door, said he hoped the state could carve out the land the building sits on and allow the club to stay there, or even purchase that land.
“On the community aspect, the emotional aspect, it’s a sad, sad story if it has to go,” Hume, 63, said. “Whatever is going to happen, it’s above my pay grade.”
Clavan said fighting the DEP on this issue is wasting money that should be used for donations and fund-raisers.
“We might as well be throwing money on the beach out there,” he said.
Clavan said the club isn’t accepting new members, at the moment, but that could change if they are allowed to stay.