Some residents want a public meeting to discuss the possibility of granting easements on their private property, allowing taxpayer funds to be spent on the replenishment of dunes wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.
Township officials, however, do not favor such a forum.
"To have one big open meeting would be counterproductive with 500 people," Council President Mo Hill said Wednesday night when a resident asked why township officials wouldn't talk about the issue in public.
According to township solicitor Ken Fitzsimmons, the township is legally prohibited from spending taxpayer funds to replenish dunes on private property destroyed by Sandy. That’s no longer a problem should the property owners grant the township an easement.
As a condition of the easement, however, Toms River is requiring property owners to grant the township public access to the beach between the dunes and the Atlantic Ocean in perpetuity.
Residents and businesses aren't ready to give up private beach access without more information. Some, like Ortley Beach resident Pat Suriani, have lost much and are unsure of trusting the township. They want a public meeting on the issue.
"I don't understand why you won't meet with us," said Suriani, who was among the handful of the barrier island residents who wanted to talk about easements with township officials.
The council has repeatedly said during previous meetings that it cannot discuss easements with residents, as that could be seen as the township offering legal advice, something it cannot do.
But residents have said that they don't want advice. They just want a discussion.
"I just don't understand why you can't talk to the taxpayers," Suriani said.
"We clearly articulated our position. We've given them documents," Fitzsimmons said. It is up to the homeowner association lawyers to present the information to those who live in the communities, he said.
Residents in communities considering granting an easement should direct their questions to their lawyers, who would then speak with Fitzsimmons. The township solicitor is accessible and willing to meet with those attorneys, Hill said.
"I think that's the most productive way to do it," Hill said.
"I'm asking the township — where I pay my taxes — to do the right thing and have a public meeting," Suriani said, her remarks drawing applause from some in the audience.
Dune replenishment began on Ortley Beach in November shortly after the township accepted a $1.3 million bid from Earle Asphalt Company. Toms River Engineer Bob Chankalian has said dune replenishment on public property is completed with the township now considering augmenting the tidal shelf to prevent the new dunes from being washed away.
"If we get the easements signed, we can get the Army Corps of Engineers to come and rebuild the beach and rebuild the dunes," Hill said. "I think from all that we've heard, they're ready, willing and able but it's a problem with the easements."
A wider beach and 20-foot high dunes could prevent serious flooding like what was seen during Sandy. But it would only work if all of the about 30 entities along the beach in Ortley grant easements. If one or a few sections of dune are not built like the rest, rising waters would find a way inland, officials have said.
Seaside Park, with its dunes of that size, experienced less damage compared to other coastal areas, Hill said. The Army Corps would dredge the ocean floor, pumping sand on to the beach. Officials have said that this would help to protect the barrier island and bayfront areas.
"If we don't get these easements, they're not coming in," Hill said.