Dock at the Viking Rowing Club on Surrey Avenue in Ventnor Heights.

VENTNOR – The Board of Commissioners introduced an ordinance Tuesday, July 26 to re-establish the time limit for access to the Viking Rowing Club dock to when the club is open.

For the last two years, the gate to the dock has been locked when rowing club members leave the premises. However, earlier this year, the board expanded access to the dock for crabbing from dusk to dawn.

During the two- to three-week period the dock was open, neighbors who live along the cove noticed increased bad behavior, mostly from juveniles, including swimming unsupervised, alcohol and drug use, and profanity, they said.

The new ordinance limits use of the dock for its intended purpose – putting boats into the water. The gate will be open only when Viking Rowing Club members are present and signage will be posted prohibiting swimming.

The gate limits access to the rowing dock.

News that the gate would once again be closed drew the ire of posters on the Ventnor Community Forum Facebook page, who said the dock should be open to the public because it falls under Green Acres regulations. None of them were present to address their concerns during the meeting.

Residents who live along Surrey Avenue were there to continue their advocacy to limit access to times when members of the club are present.

Commissioner Tim Kriebel provided insight into the background that resulted in the dock area being locked two years ago.

“This has been a hot topic going back to 1992 when the exact same circumstances took place,” Kriebel said.

He said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Green Acres program, met with the city, residents and club members in 1992 and reviewed all documentation for the use of the city-owned property for the purpose of rowing education and training, and determined in a June 23, 1992 letter to the city that the Viking Rowing Club’s intended purpose meets the requirements for open space designation.

He said although the city owns the land, it has leased the property to the foundation for $1 a year. The foundation built the Doc Holland boathouse and the dock and is responsible for maintaining the property, but the city could still be held liable if someone is injured, Kriebel said.

Club members include individuals and high school teams.

There is still open access on the beaches on either side of the dock were people can launch their kayaks, he said.

Police Chief Doug Biagi agreed it is unsafe to swim in the area because there’s “stuff down there you don’t want to take a chance jumping into”, including bicycles that juveniles have ridden off the dock.

“That spot has historically been a dumping spot for everything – bikes, shopping carts, old crab pots, lost fishing lines, even had a body wash up over there. This is not a swimmer friendly type of area,” he said.

Children play in the water on the beach next to the dock.

He said it is a “stability” dock, specifically designed for the launching of crew boats.

“The dock is going to be used as a dock, which is solely for the launching boats,” he said.

Biagi said the city’s Joint Insurance Fund supports the limitation.

“It would be irresponsible of us to allow kids to swim at taxpayers’ risk,” Kriebel said. “There is not some other hidden agenda to avoid using it. We’re keeping it open to the public when it’s in use. We will look at it through the same lens with an eye for public safety.”

Enforcement would be based on complaints received by the Police Department, Biagi said.

“We find when its locked we have less problems and we can respond and we’ll deal with it. We’ll look at it strictly as a safety aspect. It’s a no brainer, just like anything else,” Biagi said.

“Locking it has curbed that behavior,” Kriebel said. “Signage and returning to that policy is in the city’s best interest.”

“It’s the dock, not access to the water, which I think a lot of people were getting upset about,” Mayor Beth Holtzman said. “They can still access the water. We can still have possible problems.”

The beach provides access for the public.

Resident Tom Hewitt, who works at the boathouse, called for the board to consider a compromise that would provide access to the dock for others who want to use it legitimately without paying fees to be part of the rowing club.

“It’s a bit of a country club situation,” he said about the rowing club. “It’s not open to the public.”

He suggested allowing the city or Viking Rowing Club to issue keys to unlock the gate.

“The police can help manage that type of system,” Biagi said. “We do this for the basketball courts and the community building. We’ve done this sort of thing before.”

“If you are going to expand the use for the public, that becomes a part of a conversation with the board of the rowing club,” Kriebel said.

The “Doc” Holland Boathouse.

Another resident defended the fees paid for membership in the rowing club.

“You should be a member if you want to use that rowing dock,” she said. “That’s how they receive their revenue stream to keep it clean, do the maintenance, change the lights, etcetera.”

Resident Michael Berenotto, who obtained 100 signatures on a petition asking the city to limit access, said key entry system was a “bad idea.”

“It’s worked well for two years. I don’t see the need to change it,” he said.

Kriebel said the issue has brought too light a facet of the city’s Master Plan to establish a pier in the Ventnor West area that can be open for multiple purposes, including crabbing, fishing, boating and observing nature.

A public hearing on the ordinance will be held 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9.

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.