New Jersey’s plan to protect threatened shorebirds by taking control of who can drive on a stretch of pristine beach has ruffled some feathers in a town accustomed to motoring across the sand, even as foes acknowledge the need to steer clear of the birds.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has begun issuing permits allowing vehicles to drive on the northernmost beaches of Brigantine, a popular coastal town just north of Atlantic City. They took over that function from the local government, which had been regulating beach driving for years.
But new rules limiting beach traffic to 75 vehicles a day — there formerly was no limit — and limiting permits only to drivers who use the beach to fish touched off a mini-revolt in this town where people’s attachment to their beach borders on the spiritual.
Hundreds of people packed a school auditorium Tuesday to denounce the plan; only one, a conservationist, spoke in favor of it, and he was booed.
“They’re taking away our solitude, our peacefulness, our happiness,” said Ricky Palatucci, a Vietnam veteran who bought a home in Brigantine in 1992 and likes to drive on the beach. “It’s like we have no rights anymore. It’s un-American. The freedom we had on this island is being taken away from us.”
State environmental officials say all they are trying to do is protect fragile shorebirds that are required by law to be protected.
“Balancing recreation with environmental protection is a tough thing to do,” said Mark Texel, director of the state Division of Parks and Forestry.
Several states, including Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Texas, Oregon and California, allow beach driving in some spots. But nearly all of them include restrictions designed to protect wildlife.
New Jersey officials say they counted vehicle traffic on the beach last year and never saw 75 at once, saying the new regulations should not result in any noticeable decline in beach traffic. But Brigantine officials say they’ve proved they can manage the beach safely for people and animals on their own.
At issue is a 2.5-mile stretch of undeveloped sand home each year to the piping plover that nests in shallow indentations in the sand, and the seabeach amaranth, a plant that was thought to be extinct before it was rediscovered in 2001. The beach is also frequented by least terns and American oystercatchers — two birds whose numbers are of “special concern” to conservationists — and the diamondback terrapin turtle.
It’s also a stopover for the red knot, a bird considered threatened in the U.S. and endangered in Canada. They fly 8,000 miles from Chile to the U.S. east coast each year, stopping in New Jersey before continuing another 2,000 miles to Canada. Researchers counted fewer than 10,000 red knots in January, down from more than 13,000 a year earlier.
“We are not seeing the recovery we need to see with these species,” said Christine Davis, a state environmental specialist. Less than two decades ago, there were 17 pairs of piping plovers in the Brigantine area; last year there were four.
But Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther questioned the state’s knowledge of conditions in his town.
“You were shocked that we were allowing horseback riding,” he said. “So if you didn’t know we had horses weighing 1,000 pounds on the beach, how do you know how many chicks are fledging on the beach?”
As it stands now, people wishing to surf, kayak, paddleboard, paint or take photos may still do so, but only on foot. That would involve lugging equipment along up to two miles of beach.
“They are taking my beach away,” said Frank Cioci, a 70-year-old with breathing difficulties who has been waiting to drive his 5-month-old grandson to the remote beach. “I can’t walk that far. All due respect to the birds, don’t change it now.”
Officials say they will consider special accommodations for people with disabilities, as well as one-day “special use” permits for people interested in driving the beach for non-fishing activities. But none of that is allowed in the current regulations.
Brigantine Councilman Vince Sera said the city used to sell about 4,000 beach driving permits a year, most of which are used on beaches on the south end of the island that are not covered by the new state policy. New Jersey will issue only 500 permits this year for northern beaches.
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