A protected Brigantine beach owned by the State of New Jersey has started to resemble a parking lot in the summer, lined with four-wheel vehicles that threaten endangered birds that live there, state officials say.
To residents, it's a different story. They see the 2½-mile stretch as one of the most secluded areas in the city, where multistory developments are out of sight. Many drive onto the sandy expanse to paint, enjoy a cup of coffee, or simply relax.
Opposing images of the North Brigantine State Natural Area have emerged as New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection takes over management of beach driving permits north of 15th Street in an attempt to protect animals that live there. On Jan. 1, the state set new restrictions that cap the number of permits sold at 500 and allow a maximum of 75 vehicles onto the sand in a 24-hour period. The passes, called mobile sport fishing permits, will be sold only to fishermen.
At a public hearing at Brigantine North Middle School on Tuesday, more than 300 people filled an auditorium to voice opposition to the change, including State Sen. Chris Brown (R., Atlantic) and several county freeholders.
"The state is taking over the beach. They are determining when and how the beach can be used," Mayor Phil Guenther said in an interview this week.
The state has owned the North End wildlife refuge since 1967, while the city administered an unlimited number of car permits.
The DEP made the change in concert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which hopes to protect three types of birds, including the piping plover and the migratory red knot.
"North Brigantine is important for these species," said Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman. "But we're not changing access to the general public. … People can still walk onto the beach. We recognize people treasure this area for many of the same reasons the birds and animals do."
The piping plover is a sandy-colored, North American shorebird. In 2015, state data show, five pairs of piping plovers nested in the North Brigantine Natural Area, down from eight pairs a decade earlier. The birds dig shallow nests near sand dunes and walk to the shoreline to feed, but trucks lining the beach can affect their ability to create shelter, find food, and reproduce.
Red knot birds, which migrate yearly from South America to the Canadian arctic tundra and back, are also at risk in New Jersey. The birds need areas to feed while journeying back to the other side of the equator. Habitats along the Jersey Shore are vital for the species' survival.
Still, Brigantine officials want to ensure that residents have easy access to the untouched land as well. They say reaching all parts of the beach on foot will be challenging for some, particularly for elderly residents and those with health problems.
State rules in place for decades ban people from swimming, camping, and kite flying, among other activities. Permitted recreation includes jogging, photography, bird watching, and art — but many use cars to enter the beach. At Tuesday's hearing, DEP officials expressed a willingness to open a portion of the Natural Area to some now-prohibited activities and to accommodate people with disabilities.
The state will close the North End beach to vehicles entirely from May to September for the piping plovers' nesting season, though the city contends that it has done so in past years at the DEP's request.
"People are respectful of the environment and want to drive down there to enjoy nature," Guenther said. "For someone who can't walk there, that will be difficult now."
The switch may also affect the city's income.
Last year, the city sold 4,000 vehicle permits, which are $180 each but discounted for senior citizens and free for veterans. Now, Brigantine will only sell passes for the more populated South End beaches. State permits covering the North End must be purchased separately at $50 for New Jersey residents and $75 for non-New Jersey residents.
"We have no idea what the impact on revenue would be," Guenther said. "It's too early to tell, but we have had people bring their city permits back because they want access to the North End."
Costs associated with managing the North End permits have not been determined, Hanja said. New Jersey will need to hire conservation officers, patrollers, and park police. Safety procedures will likely mimic those in place at other state-owned parks, such as Island Beach State Park, where local squads respond to emergencies in conjunction with state-employed lifeguards.
City Councilman Vince Sera said local officials will meet with the DEP next week to discuss possible shared service agreements and ways to balance environmental protection with the public's needs.
"We need to find a way to coexist," Sera said. "The common thread of every person who spoke was a feeling of being left out of the decision."