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Avalon Officials Grilled Following High Dunes Report

Shay Roddy
Sunset April 10 from the 57th Street beach path. Nestled in the dunes is a home, right, built for Vahan and Danielle Gureghian. The controversial lawn that surrounds the house is not visible.

By Shay Roddy

AVALON – At a Borough Council meeting Wednesday, April 10, members of the public excoriated local officials while reacting to a recent Herald report that revealed the town did not issue citations for months after observing a homeowner’s habitat destruction in the high dunes.

Vahan and Danielle Gureghian, owners of a home that was recently built at 5609 Dune Drive, installed an unapproved lawn surrounding it, removing protected vegetation in the process. Vahan Gureghian has not responded to multiple interview requests from the Herald.

Avalon cited the Gureghians for violations of local ordinances only after the state Department of Environmental Protection sent notice of violations to them for failing to adhere to an approved state permit.

Although Avalon claimed it had deferred to the DEP to lead enforcement, the Herald investigation revealed the town hadn’t notified the DEP of what it had found, and only learned of the DEP’s involvement from a news reporter.

At the council meeting, Barbara Stout, a borough homeowner, referenced the April 1 Herald article and pointed out contradictory statements town officials made in it.

“Avalon has municipal ordinances in place to step in and put a stop to the desecration of the dunes,” she said. “But yet, Avalon let it continue. Why did Avalon try to put the onus on the DEP when they said they already knew about it? Avalon was supposed to be the steward of this valuable [resource in] our town and it failed miserably.

“Avalon reiterated in this article that it was ‘an egregious and illegal disturbance of ecological values.’ What’s even more egregious is Avalon did nothing. People from this town deserve answers.

“There is definitely a breakdown somewhere in this mess, and we deserve to know where and who is responsible. Or do we need to hear it from another scathing newspaper report? I implore you, be transparent. Step up and own it and fix it. Then, and only then, can we move on and build trust in our local government.”

A January photograph shows the lawn at 5609 Dune Drive, in stark contrast to the next-door neighbor’s property, where the natural vegetation surrounds the home. Photo Credit: Michael Heenan/File Photo

Prior to the public comment period, Council President Jamie McDermott attempted to preempt what was clearly coming by reading a prepared statement into the record.

“The mayor, the administration, and the Borough Council fully understand that there is a concern about the property at 5609 Dune Drive, in the high dunes, and the alleged installations of vegetation, which is not permitted under either the DEP permit or borough ordinance,” McDermott said.

“Since the DEP is the lead agency, the municipal court matters must follow the DEP administrative enforcement action. Therefore, this council cannot, as a matter of law, comment on any of your comments on the status of the enforcement actions. We can, however, assure the public that the matter is being pursued by both the borough and the DEP in cooperation with one another. And to that end, there will not be a recurrence of such a violation in a highly sensitive area of our community.”

When reached after the meeting by the Herald, McDermott, who is also an attorney, reiterated that he did not want to comment on the matter and said he was relying on and agreed with the advice of the borough’s counsel.

“Until this is litigated, I think that’s the proper approach,” he said.

His statement at the meeting didn’t stop Martha Wright, another borough resident, from saying her piece.

“I understand that you feel that you can’t speak about this, but that sure isn’t going to stop me from talking about it,” she told the council.

Wright read one of the ordinances in question aloud and said there is no requirement the borough defer to the DEP or accept the state agency’s recommendation.

“You own it, folks. You wrote it and you own it,” she said. “This is a borough ordinance. It may be illegal to speed in the State of New Jersey. We don’t rely on State Police to enforce that.”

Wright told the Herald she had reported other suspicious activity and allegations of illegal tree cutting to the borough two years ago, which she saw in a different part of Avalon, outside the area known as the high dunes.

In her emails to Scott Wahl, the borough administrator, which were shared with the newspaper by Wright, she alerted the town to a specific incident of suspicious cutting in the dunes near 77th Street and provided photo evidence of crews removing trees in the dunes there.

A photo provided to the borough by resident Martha Wright in 2022 showed what she said was suspicious tree work underway in the dunes near the 77th Street beach path. She was told the Avalon Police Department was investigating. Photo Credit: Martha Wright

Wahl told her Avalon police were involved in the matter and that the borough does not tolerate illegal cutting. He made no mention of deference to the DEP.

“There is simply nothing in [Wahl’s] reply to indicate the borough is second to the N.J. DEP. If I’d been told it was, I’d have immediately gone to the DEP,” Wright wrote in an email to the Herald.

She said she now plans to alert the DEP retroactively.

Wahl did not immediately respond to an inquiry from the Herald, which sought an explanation of how the 77th Street incident might be different from the incident at 5609 Dune Drive, and an update on the outcome of the police investigation into the 77th Street matter.

An image from Google Street View, provided to the borough by resident Martha Wright. She said this image shows what the area in question, at 77th Street, looked like prior to the tree work.

Another resident, Elaine Scattergood, voiced her displeasure.

Scattergood was, herself, cited for violating an Avalon ordinance when the borough called Virginia creeper vines that surrounded her 30th Street home overgrown and illegal.

She took the case to a Municipal Court trial and won in 2020. When fighting her case, she told The Philadelphia Inquirer she believed town officials were focused on keeping Avalon’s properties looking pristine and that she was targeted for her history as an outspoken environmental activist.

At the April 10 council meeting, Scattergood joined Stout and Wright in voicing displeasure with the borough’s handling of the 5609 Dune Drive lawn matter.

She questioned how much effort was made to investigate construction there after her neighbor raised concerns to the borough in July 2023.

“Paul Short [the borough’s inspector] responded: ‘I’ve checked on those. They’re doing work up in the dunes. There is no violation,’” Scattergood recalled was the borough’s response to her neighbor’s concerns. “I don’t believe that for a minute.”

The Gureghians are due in Avalon Municipal Court June 3, and the DEP has said they must remediate the property by May 31. However, according to photographs reviewed by the Herald, no remediation work had been done as of April 8.

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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