Owner of $17.4M Jersey Shore mansion tried to create a private beach for himself. Activists put a stop to it.

Posted Jul 21, 2020

On a busy weekend at the Jersey Shore, there was an empty space where no beach-goers dared to sit.

Planters and orange traffic cones, combined with six white pop-up canopies and a sign reading “No trespassing” were enough of a deterrence to keep sunbathers off the half-acre of sand in front of an 11,000-square foot estate in Long Branch.

But beach access advocates insisted they gave a false but strong impression that the area was off-limits to the public, which would go against a 2010 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that expanses of beach created by a public replenishment project, which this one had been, cannot be claimed as private property.

The owner of the luxurious $17.4 million estate, Joseph Jerome, insisted he never meant to discourage the public from using the beach between the ocean and his property and has since removed the planters and tents.

The beach access coalition — including the American Littoral Society, the Surfrider Foundation’s Jersey Shore Chapter, the Jersey Coast Anglers Association and the Citizens’ Right to Access Beaches, or CRAB — enlisted the aid of Long Branch Mayor John Pallone in a letter Wednesday.

Pallone later told NJ Advance Media on Tuesday that he received the coalition’s letter on Thursday and forwarded it to the city business administrator, George Jackson, directing him to look into the matter further and take any appropriate action necessary.

Jackson said he asked for a legal opinion from the city attorney, who agreed with the coalition. Jackson said he then called Mr. Jerome’s property manager, who had the tents taken town and the planters moved behind Jerome’s true property line.

Jerome’s property — an Italianate mansion he built in 2011, the centerpiece of an oceanfront compound with a pool, tennis and basketball courts — lies along a narrow public access path to the beach from Ocean Avenue, Long Branch’s waterfront boulevard. Before the eight planters were relocated, members of the public walking out onto the beach who glanced to their left were immediately confronted by them, arranged in two perpendicular rows that met to form a corner suggesting a square enclosure, with a half-dozen white, open-sided tents pitched in what gave the impression of a small beach club.

Jerome insisted that the “No Trespassing” sign standing guard over the property had somehow been “turned around.” The original intent of the sign, he said, was to keep trespassers off only a narrow strip of sand that was clearly his property, on the upland side of an old bulkhead that existed prior to a 2013 beach replenishment project. The $40 million replenishment project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was funded by taxpayers.

“I had people who were going up my stairs,” Jerome said.

Beach-goers Marcelle Tarkiaeh and her mother, Jenny were on the beach near his property Thursday but had taken care to spread their towels just outside the planters, on what was left of the beach.

“I thought the tents were on private property,” said Marcelle, 12, who lives in Long Branch with her brother and their parents. “I thought we weren’t allowed to come to this beach, because the signs say ‘private property.’”

Marcelle and her mom were among the very few people using the beach near the Park Avenue public access point on Thursday afternoon. But a regular surfer there, 31-year-old Geoff Grandt of Rumson, said the difference was stark on weekends, when the cordoned area remained virtually empty even as beachgoers sought to keep a social distance from one another on the crowded sand outside its perimeter.

Asked to explain the purpose of the planters while standing on the beach on Thursday after he had acknowledged the area was public, Jerome said, “beautification.”

“They’re pretty,” he added. “But if you want us to take them away, we’ll take them away.”

Jerome’s language and demeanor were so matter-of-fact that Surfrider Foundation Legislative Director Joe Coakley was compelled to explain to him that, “People have been very angry about this.”

To which Jerome simply replied, “So, if you want us to take them away, we’ll take them away. It’s not a problem.”

And sure enough, a photo taken by a coalition member on Friday showed the tents had been struck and the planters moved behind Jerome’s property line. It was unclear whether the items had been removed as a result of the activists’ lunchtime conversation with Mr. Jerome on the beach Thursday or the city administrator’s call to the property manager later that same afternoon.

A volleyball net that had also been put up by Jerome remained standing on Friday. And while Coakley later said the net should come down, too, he added, “is it the biggest deal in the world? No.”

Another beach access advocate, American Littoral Society Director Tim Dillingham, said in an email on Friday that it was, “good news any time actions that block the public from their right to use the beach and ocean are fixed.”

“Unfortunately,” Dillingham added, “Too many impediments to public access are thrown up along the coast — parking restrictions, blocked street ends, adjacent landowners attempt to claim the beach for themselves. Each one that falls is a win for the public.”

In a phone interview Friday, Jerome said he recalled signing two agreements at the time of the replenishment project, possibly with the city and the Army Corps of Engineers, that allowed the project to go forward, though the details eluded him.

In any case, he said, he had removed the planters and tents from the beach, and that was the end of it.

“The results speak for themselves,” he said.

The state Supreme Court decision cited by the beach access advocates actually stemmed from a dispute right down the beach in Long Branch, in which a commercial property owner sued the city for a higher compensation figure after his waterfront property had been condemned for a redevelopment project.

In the case, City of Long Branch v. Jui Yung Liu, the owner, Liu, claimed he owned beach property condemned by the city that had been created by a publicly funded replenishment project, and therefore he was entitled to compensation for the property.

The justices ruled against him, upholding lower court rulings that waterfront private property rights can only extend from upland to the “mean high-water mark,” or the average high tide line. Anything on the ocean side of the mean is the public’s domain, the court held. And if a publicly funded replenishment project expands the beach — and the mean high water mark — farther toward the sea, the original high water mark remains the private property line.

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