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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Avalon High Dunes Homeowner Facing Sanctions for Lawn Installation

Michael Heenan
Owners of a new Avalon home, built in the environmentally protected high dunes area that the borough is known for, are accused of removing 8,000 square feet of native vegetation to install a lawn with underground irrigation. The DEP discovered the lawn and issued a notice of violation, requiring the homeowners to restore the property. Avalon followed suit, citing them and demanding they appear in municipal court.

By Shay Roddy

AVALON – The new owners of one of the town’s 11 exclusive high dunes properties have found themselves in hot water, accused by the state and borough of clearing more than 8,000 square feet of dune to install a lawn surrounding a newly constructed residence in the environmentally protected area.

The owners of the Dune Drive property, husband and wife Vahan and Danielle Gureghian, were served with a notice of violation from the state Department of Environmental Protection last month and were issued a summons by the borough and ordered to appear in municipal court.

The DEP’s notice alleges violation of the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act by the Gureghians, for placing wood chips, installing an irrigation system, and maintaining a lawn area on previously undeveloped and conservation restricted dune area, which an Avalon official said the DEP discovered using a drone. The borough followed, filing a municipal court complaint against Vahan Gureghian, alleging interference with the dunes.

The Gureghians, who are lawyers and charter school magnates, paid $12 million for the land in June 2022 and asked the Avalon Planning Board the following month for permission to demolish the existing home, records show. When their plans to build a new three-story home were approved by the board and the DEP, there was no mention of the lawn.

Vahan and Danielle Gureghian were issued a notice of violation by the DEP for a lawn they installed surrounding the home they recently built in Avalon’s high dunes. The Dune Drive property was never given approval to install the lawn in the environmentally protected area. Photo Credit: Michael Heenan

The Gureghians did not respond to a request for comment for this article, sent using the contact information they provided on planning documents that were submitted to the borough.

Avalon’s high dunes are such a precious resource that the borough’s Environmental Commission makes recommendations for ordinances and development conditions concerning the dunes, in an effort to ensure their responsible management. Owners cannot landscape there without an approved dune vegetation management plan, according to borough ordinance.

The Gureghians entered into such a plan, a prerequisite for any landscaping in the protected area, sending the borough a check for $96,691.25 and hiring the borough’s environmental consultant, as required, to draft a detailed proposal for how to manage landscaping in the dune area surrounding the new home.

The June 2023 proposal by the environmental consultant, Lomax Consulting Group of Court House, lays out a plan to remove invasive Japanese black pines from the area and install native vegetation in their stead, prune and maintain existing native vegetation, and manage damaging vines.

“Property owners are allowed to write a letter to express interest in a (dune vegetation management plan), and then it goes through the proper channels to the Avalon Environmental Commission,” Scott Wahl, borough business administrator, told the Herald.

“This is a voluntary program, not mandatory nor required. Most people inquire because the view of the beach and ocean is blocked by the pines; once they learn that ecological diversity is better for the dunes, they often decide to participate as the views are improved, and the ecology of the dunes near their properties is also improved. An applicant cannot just pick anything; selections must be native and approved by the Environmental Commission.”

The pines, introduced to the dunes in “well-meaning” efforts in earlier years, resulted in “unintended consequences,” Wahl said. Within the dunes, Japanese black pines displace native species, damage native trees and create fire hazards as a result of an inordinate amount of fire prone tinder, according to a memorandum memorializing the dune vegetation management plan, prepared by an attorney for Avalon.

In a September 2023 letter to Wahl, Donna Rothman, chair of the Environmental Commission, approved the Lomax Consulting Group’s dune vegetation management plan associated with the property.

In her letter, she specifies that there can be no “fixed sprinkler type irrigation systems” used, which, according to the DEP’s allegations, the property owner clearly has defied. Even if they were to argue the lawn was installed to replace the removed pines, the grass isn’t native and the pines were mapped far from where the lawn was installed.

Wahl also pointed out to the Herald that the property owner signed a memorandum in October 2023 memorializing the agreed-upon landscaping plan and “the area of unapproved disturbance was not part of the (dune vegetation management plan).”

The memorandum states that it is unlawful “to disturb, remove, or redistribute sand or vegetation within the beach/dune area without full compliance with the borough dune vegetation management plan.”

This, Wahl said, specifically put the Gureghians on notice that they were not to install any sort of lawn without express permission.

The Gureghians’ property, center, has a lawn including underground irrigation that the borough and the DEP both issued citations for. Photo Credit: Michael Heenan

“As far as I know, permission was never requested and certainly was never granted,” he told the Herald. “Through the years we have enacted 50 of these plans, and all were executed without errors or issues.”

The property, once owned by Myung Song, a Philadelphia toy executive who brought the Super Soaker to market, offers some of the most impressive ocean views on the island and rare privacy reminiscent of Block Island or Nantucket, buffered by the sweeping vegetated dunes Avalon is famous for.

Properties in the dunes have been at the center of controversy over the years, with activist groups carefully watching developments and resisting plans to disturb the natural resource. A mansion built about 15 years ago a few blocks down from the Gureghians for Michael Rice, then the chief executive of the Utz potato chip empire, faced legal action and was the site of regular protests and picket lines.

To those who oppose high dunes development, the lawn adds insult to injury. Martha Wright, a resident and regular speaker during public comment periods, voiced her displeasure at Borough Council meetings on Jan. 24 and Feb. 14.

“It is outrageous. No amount of remediation will ever restore that property to the condition it was once in,” Wright said at the January meeting.

Borough Council President Jamie McDermott told Wright the council fully supports the action taken by the DEP to remediate and restore the property.

“They (the Gureghians) pledged no disturbance to the high dune area,” McDermott said. “We are going to do everything in our power to support [the DEP] to do what we can in our lifetime – and I agree with you – to restore the natural vegetation that has been destroyed there.”

Reached by the Herald, McDermott said he didn’t want to comment beyond his statements at the meeting.

In issuing the notice of violation, the DEP demands the lawn be removed and the property restored to pre-disturbance conditions, with the restoration proposal due to be submitted to the DEP and implemented within 90 days of the Jan. 17 notice.

According to Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, the Gureghians requested and were granted an extension. They now have until the end of May to comply with the notice, and Hajna noted to the Herald, “That is the deadline for completion of restoration work.”

They are due to appear in municipal court to face the borough’s charges for interference with the dunes June 3.

Both agencies may issue fines and other penalties. The municipal court summons lists the offense date as Sept. 28, 2023, while the DEP said it observed the alleged violation Oct. 20, 2023. Wahl said the DEP alerted Avalon of the alleged illegal activity.

“It’s a daily complaint relating back to the day when the first violation occurred, and we are asking for daily penalties, which could be $2,000 per day up to the day of the adjudication,” Assistant Business Administrator James Waldron said of the municipal summons at the Feb. 14 council meeting.

While there may be no way to fully mitigate the damage done by the clearing of the dunes to install the lawn, at least for a long time, the borough is clearly taking the matter seriously.

“The Avalon dune system not only provides a resiliency purpose for the borough, but is a vibrant, diverse ecosystem that carries high value for our community and our region. When the borough identifies prohibited activity in the high dunes, we take it seriously,” Wahl wrote in an email to the newspaper.

“Since this matter will have a hearing in municipal court, and because the [DEP] is the lead enforcing authority, it is improper for the borough to further comment on this specific case pending future court action.”

The Gureghians’ lawn disturbed more than 8,000 square feet of vegetated dune area, according to the DEP and the borough. Photo Credit: Michael Heenan

Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at sroddy@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.

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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