Judge skewers both sides in New Jersey beach access trial

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2017, file photo, Superior Court Judge Lisa Thornton presides over a hearing in Freehold, N.J. Thornton is hearing a case involving beach access in Deal, N.J. where the government wants to vacate an oceanfront street end and sell it to an adjacent landowner for $1 million. Surfers use that spot to reach the beach, and an environmental group is suing to try to block the sale on the grounds that it would reduce public access to the beach. (Thomas P. Costello/The Asbury Park Press via AP, File)

FREEHOLD — A high-stakes trial about beach access at the New Jersey shore has stalled after the judge in the case made clear, in often colorful terms, that she was less than impressed with arguments made by both sides.

With quips and lacerating observations during a hearing Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Lisa Thornton at one point told one of the attorneys, “Don’t get your underwear in a bunch,” and said another’s responses amounted to “dancing” around the question.

The American Littoral Society, a coastal environmental group, is suing the borough of Deal, trying to nullify an ordinance it passed in December that would vacate the end of an oceanfront street in return for a $1 million payment from a nearby landowner who wants the property as part of a development proposal.

The street, though listed on state records as a spot for “visual access” of the ocean, is also used by surfers as a physical access point, despite the fact they must scramble down a steep wall of boulders to get onto the sand. An official access point is at a nearby street end.

The group, which has fought for decades to preserve the public’s right to access and use public beaches, fears a dangerous precedent may be set in which coastal towns sell street ends to private landowners. The new owners might then block off spots the public has long used to reach the sand, according to access advocates.

Deal maintains it no longer needs the street end, but that it could use the money, and denies the transaction would reduce beach access.

But the hearing failed to resolve the matter amid confusion over whether Deal ever legally gained ownership to the street.

“If you may not kinda own it, what are you doing selling it, getting a million dollars?” Thornton asked Paul Fernicola, an attorney for Deal.

Fernicola produced a map from a company that owned the land that is now Deal, “dedicating” it to the municipality in 1897. But Thornton repeatedly pressed him to prove that the map conveyed an ownership interest in the street to Deal. After an hour, she remained unconvinced, describing Fernicola as “dancing” around the question.

Andrew Provence, the attorney for the Littoral Society, fared little better. The judge expressed skepticism about the basis of his challenge to Deal’s ordinance. And she heaped scorn on a document he introduced from a title search company purporting to show that no proof exists that Deal owns the street, calling it “a bunch of poppycock.”

The judge also questioned the propriety of the transaction.

“What if Lisa Thornton wants (the borough) to do something and I don’t have a million dollars?” she asked. “Is that how our government works? Should people with money have an ability to get the government to do something that someone without money can’t get the government to do?”

The judge said additional evidence as to the ownership of the street is needed before the case can move forward. Both sides were to confer next week on their next steps.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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