A New Jersey appeals court has upheld a lower court’s decision that Belmar improperly doubled beach parking fees and used beach badge fees and donations from a post-Superstorm Sandy fund to pay for nonbeach-related expenses that resulted from the devastating storm.

However, the appellate panel also ruled that since the doubling of the parking fees was the only claim that violated the state’s Civil Rights Act (CRA) — in terms as being excessive — the group of residents filing the lawsuit against the borough is only entitled to attorney fees related to that claim.

As a result, the panel remanded the case to Superior Court Judge Katie Gummer to recalculate the original $170,000 in attorney fees “based on plaintiffs’ limited success on their CRA-related claims.”

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Belmar-based attorney Kenneth Pringle, who represents the plaintiffs, said they were thrilled with the decision, which affirmed Judge Gummer’s findings that the borough administration under former Mayor Matthew Doherty had repeatedly violated the public trust doctrine and the beach fee statute by charging unreasonable beach fees.

“We are especially pleased that the court affirmed Judge Gummer’s holding that the protections of the Civil Rights Act, and the important attorney’s fee remedy it provides, extend to violations of the beach fee statute,” said Pringle, who served as Belmar mayor from 1990 to 2010.

“This is the first time an appellate court in New Jersey has ever affirmed an award of attorney’s fees in a beach fee case, and we hope it will encourage attorneys to take on similar cases in the future,” he added.

Regarding the court’s ruling on limiting attorney fees to the beachfront parking fee claim only, Pringle said that “narrow interpretation” of the beach fee statute will be reviewed with his clients and “discussing with them whether we should petition the New Jersey Supreme Court to review that aspect of the Court’s decision.”

Attorney William Northgrave of Roseland-based McManimon, Scotland & Baumann, LLC, who represents Belmar in the suit, and Doherty, who was mayor at the time, did not respond to requests for comment.

The 2016 litigation stemmed from actions the borough took — or planned to take — in response to the extensive damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. In its decision, the appeals upheld Judge Gummer’s findings as stated: “the borough improperly used funds derived from beach fees (beach funds) to settle nonbeach-related litigation; improperly deposited into the borough's general fund certain donations raised through a campaign to help rebuild the boardwalk (“Buy-a-Board” donations); planned to improperly use the “Buy-a-Board” donations, and certain other funds restricted for beach use, to rebuild a boardwalk pavilion (Taylor Pavilion) that was largely used for nonbeach purposes; and doubled the fees for beachfront parking spaces in order to raise money for the general fund.”

Judge Gummer’s decision was predicated on a 30-year-old ruling that found Belmar in violation of the public trust doctrine for misusing beach badge revenues by commingling them with general revenues — for the “exclusive benefit” of Belmar residents, rather than being set aside to meet future beach-related costs.

As a result of that 1989 ruling, the borough has been required since the 1990 summer season to maintain a separate beach utility account “in which all revenues collected by the borough, from beach admission fees and any other beach use fees, shall be deposited, and from which all expenditures for beach related costs will be paid,” the appellate panel stated in its decision.

In that ruling, the panel said that doubling parking fees along the beachfront only targeted nonresidents — and therefore violated the public trust doctrine.

The panel also reaffirmed the trial court’s decision that the borough misused donations raised through the borough’s “Buy a Board” campaign to rebuild the boardwalk to help rebuild the Taylor Pavilion- — a building primarily used for community functions unrelated to the beach.

For the appeals court decision approved for publication on April 22, click here.

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