BRIGANTINE — As soon as you drive onto the beach from 14th Street, the world’s a different place.
The tightly packed, three-story homes are left behind. Instead there is just sand, water and sky. It’s one of the largest stretches of undeveloped barrier island beach left in New Jersey.
“You do get cut off at certain times,” said Andy Grossman, owner of Riptide Bait and Tackle here, as he drove his four-wheel-drive truck up the beach Tuesday just after high tide. The high-water mark reached to the base of the dunes, so vehicles that made it to the end would have had to wait for the tide to turn before driving back.
The almost two-mile long beach, part of the North Brigantine State Natural Area, has been owned by the state since 1967.
But in an agreement with the state, the city has overseen its human use, including selling permits for people to drive on the beach. The city permit also allows driving on beaches around the South End’s jetty and cove.
At the more isolated and less used North End, permit holders could fish, paint, surf, kayak or just relax with a cup of coffee.
Now all that has changed.
The state Department of Environmental Protection took over permitting for beach driving in the Natural Area as of Jan. 1, after telling the city it would do so about a year ago.
Under its rules, a limited number of state permits are being sold — $50 for New Jersey residents and $75 for nonresidents — and the Mobile Sport Fishing Permits are for fishing only. The state will limit access to the area to 75 permit holders per 24-hour period.
“We have not had any rational answer given to us about why they would prohibit certain activities that have taken place there for decades,” said Mayor Phil Guenther, of activities other than fishing.
The agreement with the city had expired, according to DEP spokesman Larry Hajna. And the state wants a higher level of protection for beach-nesting birds, such as the endangered piping plovers that are known to nest there.
“It is a designated Natural Area, and therefore a higher level of resource protection is necessary,” Hajna said.
Development pressure has increased dramatically since the 1960s on threatened and endangered species, said Christina “Kashi” Davis, an environmental specialist with the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program. That’s why the state is moving now to increase protections there, she said.
State data show four pairs of piping plover nested in the Natural Area in 2017, fledging nine chicks, according to Davis. But in the early 2000s, 17 pairs bred there, she said.
The city has closed the northern part of the Natural Area to vehicles during piping plover nesting season, at the request of the state, Guenther said.
The DEP plans to continue closing only the area north of the remains of an old Coast Guard station, unless piping plover begin nesting farther south, said Dave Jenkins, the DEP’s bureau chief in the ENSP.
But one thing that is changing is the date of closing, Davis said.
Previously it was timed from the hatching of the first piping plover to the time the last fledgling left the nest, she said. The closing will now last from May 15 to Sept. 15, which is a bit longer time to allow other birds to use the area undisturbed. That includes the threatened red knot on its lesser-known fall migration back to South America.
South Jersey is most familiar with the red knot’s spring migration north, when it stops on the Delaware bayshore in large numbers to feed on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. The fall migration, which can last through late December, is much more spread out in time, Davis said. Still, hundreds to thousands of the birds can be seen on some days at North Brigantine, she said.
While people can still access the area on foot, without need of a permit, anyone carrying equipment like a kayak or painting easel will find the two-mile trek a tough one, Guenther said.
The extreme North End is the only place to get a good view of Little Beach, a small, undeveloped barrier island about 500 yards across Brigantine Inlet from the North point and part of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.
According to the DEP, Brigantine North is part of the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island beach in the state, at 9.75 miles when added to Little Beach and Holgate, also part of Forsythe. Island Beach State Park is a similar size, at just under 10 miles, but unlike North Brigantine has a road built through much of it.
Guenther said the city was meeting with the DEP Thursday and hopes to either convince it to allow the city to take back oversight of the Natural Area, or at least allow people to do more than fish there.
There is also a public meeting with DEP officials set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Brigantine North Middle School.
Another issue is public safety, the mayor said.
When the city had oversight of the area, city police patrolled the area regularly.
Now the patrolling is done by the state, and Guenther said he wants a better understanding of how the state will provide emergency services there.
Guenther also hopes to resolve a tricky situation involving permits.
To access North Brigantine by vehicle, people have to cross about 1,500 feet of city beach. That means they might also need a city permit, Guenther said.
“That’s one of the reasons we are meeting, to clarify whether state permit owners have to have a Brigantine permit,” Guenther said.
More than 3,000 people bought the city’s $180 annual permits last year, Guenther said. They are $90 for senior citizens over 60 and free for veterans.