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Monday, July 15, 2024

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Sportsmen’s Club Gets a Reprieve Pending an Appeal

Sunset Beach Sportsman’s Club
File Photo
The Sunset Beach Sportsmen’s Club has won a stay on a judge’s ruling giving the DEP the right to take possession of its building after Nov. 11.

By Christopher South

COURT HOUSE – A Superior Court judge has approved a stay on his previous order that would have allowed the state Department of Environmental Protection to take possession of the Sunset Beach Sportsmen’s Club building.

Judge Dean Marcolongo on July 1 issued the stay on his summary judgment of May 7 pending resolution of an appeal by the club of that judgment, which could have led to the building’s demolition in November.

Christopher Gillin-Schwartz, the club’s attorney, told Marcolongo nothing would change if the stay were granted. The club would continue to operate, and the state’s multimillion-dollar saltwater marsh restoration project in the neighboring Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area could continue, unimpeded by the club’s operation, he said.

The DEP is engaged in a $37.5 million ecological restoration project involving a 428-acre section of the nearly 1,200-acre Higbee reserve. The state-owned property the club is located on, which is slightly more than a half-acre, is at the western fringe of the wildlife management area.

Christopher Gillin-Schwartz, attorney for the Sunset Beach Sportsmen’s Club, at the hearing on the stay request. At left is the club’s president, Emaleigh Kaithern. Photo Credit: Christopher South

Deputy Attorney General Jason Kane had argued that the state’s position was that the presence of the club, which has an alcohol license, might threaten the state’s ability to receive federal funds for the project.

“I feel it’s unlikely you will lose federal funding,” the judge said.

Marcolongo previously ruled in his summary judgment that the DEP could take possession of the clubhouse and any other personal property at the site; the state Office of the Attorney General had filed a motion for the summary judgment, which requires no trial, on May 7.

Marcolongo wrote then that the request for summary judgment was granted. “It is further ordered that plaintiff is granted the legal right to exclusive sole possession, and the defendant no longer has a legal right to possession of the real property,” he wrote.

Superior Court Judge Dean Marcolongo at the July 1 hearing. Photo Credit: Christopher South

The judge also included a provision that the state could apply for a warrant of removal of the clubhouse, but not before Nov. 11, with the decision saying that any personal property and the building would become the property of the DEP if not removed before Nov. 11.

In granting the motion for the stay July 1, Marcolongo acknowledged: “If there is no stay, the bulldozers could level the building on Nov. 12.” He further acknowledged that granting the stay would mean nothing would change for the time being.

Gillin-Schwartz on June 4 filed an appeal of Marcolongo’s summary judgment. The appeals process is one that could stretch out for some time. “I have seen some appeals take two years,” the attorney said.

The clubhouse sits on property that belonged to the Harbison-Walker Refracteries, known locally as the former magnesite plant. The club moved to the location in 1957 and from 1982 had a lease for the property that required it to pay the property taxes for the site, which is next to the Sunset Beach Gift Shop.

In 1999, by which time the state owned the property, the state proposed the idea of the club’s performing property maintenance on the site in lieu of paying rent. However, the club continued to pay property taxes to Lower Township, which in 2022 had the property assessed at $79,900. That year the club paid $1,645 in property taxes.

According to the state’s motion for summary judgment, the lease arrangement assumed by the DEP expired in 1999, and in 2022 the state filed a landlord/tenant complaint seeking the club’s removal from the property. The state has not offered to sell the land to the club but has offered to compensate it for the building.

The club has a liquor license administered by Lower Township. The sale of alcohol is also a matter of contention for the state, which prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol on state-owned land.

Gillin-Schwartz, in his oral presentation before Marcolongo seeking the stay, referred to last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a case brought in part by three Cape May-based fishermen. Their case sought relief from alleged agency overreach.

Emaleigh Kaithern, president of the Sunset Beach Sportsmen’s Club, said she was quite relieved to have the stay approved pending the appeal.

“The club was granted time to let the courts shake this out,” Kaithern said. “There has been a lot of concern among our members about the interference with other processes.” The “other processes” primarily refer to the DEP’s asking the township to consider not renewing the club’s annual license.

Kaithern said that with the judge’s decision to execute the stay the club could look forward to celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Gillin-Schwartz said the case is really more about the club trying to hang onto its meeting place.

“This case is not just about some small liquor license in Lower Township,” he said, but is about getting state and federal agencies to recognize the needs and desires of people in a particular community.

“This is a community club. Where is the harm?” he said.

Contact the reporter, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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