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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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After Discovering Unauthorized High Dunes Lawn, Avalon Did not Act for Months

Michael Heenan/File Photo
A home in the high dunes of Avalon has a lawn that was never authorized and necessitated the clearing of native vegetation. An Avalon official first discovered it in September, but the town took no action until January.

By Shay Roddy

AVALON – After an inspection in September 2023 found that property owners installed an 8,000-square-foot lawn without authorization in the strictly protected high dunes, borough officials took no action for months afterward, even though they later called the lawn an “egregious and illegal disturbance of ecological values.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection had also been tipped off to the lawn, but not by Avalon. As the DEP investigated the situation, Avalon had already seen the yard. But it wasn’t until just days after the DEP sanctioned the property owners in January that the borough issued citations, about four months after Avalon first discovered the problem.

Construction of the new home at 5609 Dune Drive, on a site where another house was razed in the high dunes, was monitored during inspections by the borough’s zoning and code enforcement officials. During a final zoning inspection Sept. 28, 2023, Paul Short Sr., the borough’s inspector, noted that the area in question didn’t match the approved plan, public records reviewed by the Herald revealed.

The borough did not alert the state agency of Short’s finding. But unbeknownst to Short, or apparently to any other Avalon officials, the DEP had been working the case since it got a tip about the property via its WARN DEP mobile app on Sept. 20, 2023.

The DEP followed up on Oct. 20 with a compliance evaluation at the property, according to the violation notice it sent to the property owners, Vahan and Danielle Gureghian, in January. The DEP issued a notice of violation to the Gureghians Jan. 17, accusing them of violating the Coastal Area Facility Review Act for unauthorized activity within a “previously undeveloped conservation restricted CAFRA regulated dune area.”

A timeline shows the gap between when Avalon first became aware of the unauthorized lawn and when it acted in response to the discovery.

According to Scott Wahl, Avalon’s business administrator and public information officer, twice before the borough’s September visit the borough had put the property owners on notice that any landscaping to the dune area surrounding the home was strictly regulated.

Wahl responded to recent Herald inquiries with prepared statements, acknowledging that the borough did not alert the DEP prior to the agency’s issuing the Gureghians the Jan. 17 violations notice, while confirming the borough was unaware of the DEP’s investigation into the property until it received a reporter’s inquiry in January.

The notices of violation the homeowners had been served by the DEP only came to Avalon’s knowledge through a January article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the DEP’s decision to give the Gureghians additional time to respond to the notices was only brought to the borough’s attention by the contractor working on the property, according to Wahl. There was no communication from September through January between Avalon and the DEP regarding the condition of the property, he acknowledged.

According to Wahl, though the borough did not notify the DEP of what it saw, it “intended to do so when determination of compliance with the CAFRA permit by the NJDEP was offered. Since a violation was found, we responded immediately with municipal violations and our findings to the state.”

Wahl said the borough initiated a better communication policy for both parties, adding, “That will not occur again.”

When asked by the Herald why the borough waited to cite the property owners for the local ordinance violations it filed, and why it did so only after learning of the DEP’s involvement, which Avalon knew would be publicized, Wahl wrote: “Your question regarding the length of time for borough enforcement action has merit. Code Enforcement has purposefully put the limited matters like these in abeyance pending review by the NJDEP for CAFRA compliance.

“The borough has historically subrogated initial enforcement in limited matters like this to the lead agency, which in this case is the NJDEP. Once we were noticed the NJDEP filed a notice of violation, the borough immediately filed its violations for municipal ordinances.”

The borough accused the Gureghians of violating two chapters of the borough code, saying “protected dunes were disturbed behind dwelling with the installation of grass and landscaping buffer” and further describing the offense as the “removal of existing vegetation from protected dune area.”

However, the borough never notified the DEP about the problem in the four months between when Avalon observed it and when the borough issued the citations, nor did it know that the state agency was investigating the matter, though Avalon said it was holding the matter in abeyance pending a DEP decision on what action to take.

Similarly, while the DEP investigated, it did not inform Avalon it was looking into the property.

“There has been no communication from the NJDEP to the borough regarding this specific case,” Wahl told the Herald in March, adding the DEP apparently did try to email a part-time borough employee in January about the notices sent to the Gureghians, but that part-time official had no email address and was the only attempted contact.

In a mid-February email to the Herald, Wahl wrote about how the borough found out about the disturbance: “This is one the NJDEP reported to the borough.” But later he described having to prod the DEP to report on its involvement and recalled hearing key information from journalists and contractors, not from the state agency.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, told the Herald he did not have any information about whether the agency alerted the borough of its investigation prior to issuing the notice, but said he would “suggest you ask Avalon how they may have become aware of this.”

Short, the code and zoning enforcement official who conducted the inspection for the borough in September and noted the discrepancy from the approved plans, told the Herald he consulted with Wahl on part of the business administrator’s statement to the newspaper, but did not wish to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation and a pending June date in municipal court.

There, the Gureghians will need to answer the borough’s citations. By May 31, they must remove the lawn and remediate the property, according to the DEP.

“The borough is seeking to impose a separate penalty for each 24-hour period that the violation exists up to the time of correction,” Wahl wrote. In the complaint description, Short wrote, “Every day that the violation goes unabated, it will count as a new violation,” starting Jan. 25. Fines can be up to $2,000 per day, said Avalon Assistant Business Administrator James Waldron.

Short said, through Wahl, that “the lawn area was either completed or substantially completed at the time of the inspection” Sept. 28, so it is unclear how much, if any, additional dune habitat destruction may have been avoided if immediate action were taken.

The Gureghians’ Dune Drive home, photographed Jan. 30, has a lawn that sprawls over 8,000 square feet. It was never approved and replaced native vegetation in Avalon’s highly sensitive and regulated high dunes. Photo Credit: Michael Heenan/File Photo

According to Wahl, after the lack of communication between the DEP and borough came to light, Short reached out to the agency in an attempt to improve communication channels moving forward. He told Wahl that in 21 years working code enforcement for Avalon, there have only been three or four “incidents of this nature.”

The Lomax Consulting Group, which, at the borough’s direction, had to be hired by the property owner to execute the Dune Vegetation Management Plan, noticed some cutting of vegetation in the dunes on private property in August 2023, Wahl said. The property owner was given notice by Lomax in an Aug. 21, 2023 email, reminding him the DEP regulates disturbance on private property, Wahl said.

“Disturbance of the vegetation, even on the hill between the house and the road, would likely be considered a regulated activity by the state as they would consider that hill as part of the dune system,” the environmental consultant wrote in the email, provided by Wahl.

An email from the Herald to Vahan Gureghian, who owns the home with his wife, did not receive a reply prior to publication. Whether any remediation work has been done and to what degree could not be immediately determined.

While Avalon said it is keeping an open mind and would not rule out charging the landscapers who performed the unauthorized work, the DEP said it is not contemplating any other violation notices for the work at the property.

“The borough has no probable cause to charge anyone else at this stage. That may change if further evidence becomes available to the borough’s enforcement personnel,” Wahl said. “The identification of additional persons or entities who may have responsibility may come to light because of the NJDEP civil-administration procedures, and should that occur, the borough will be able to evaluate whether sufficient evidence exists to charge additional parties.”

Wahl told the Herald the borough is “grateful for the media coverage in this case, as it has helped generate recognition and awareness of egregious and illegal disturbance of ecological values, which remains of high importance to both parties.”

To reach the reporter, Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com or call (609) 886-8600 ext. 142.

The Gureghians’ high dunes property stands in stark contrast to its next-door neighbor, where there is little landscaping to the dune area surrounding the home. Photo Credit: Michael Heenan
Reporter

Shay Roddy is a Delaware County, Pennsylvania native who has always spent as much of his summers as he could at the Jersey Shore. He went to Friends’ Central and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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