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LONGPORT – After much discussion at the Sept. 5 workshop meeting, the Borough of Longport will not open its beach to vehicles for the Atlantic County Surf Fishing Derby being held on Absecon Island and Brigantine Sept. 23 to Nov. 17.

According to borough officials, the borough has only allowed participants to drive their vehicles on the beach for three of the more than 40 years the derby has been held, from 2013 to 2015, but there were “violations and complaints,” Longport Police Chief Frank Culmone said.

“The beach is a fragile commodity,” Culmone said.

The borough would need to “tighten up” ordinances and pass a resolution to allow it, Longport Mayor Nicholas Russo said.

Registration for the annual surf fishing competition is now open at area bait and tackle shops. The event has been named in honor of Pat Erdman, who helped organize the derby for many years.

Although Russo pushed hard to get his fellow commissioners to allow vehicles on the beach during the derby, he could not get a second on his motion to allow Longport to participate this year.

The tournament has been held on the beaches of Atlantic City, Brigantine, Margate and Ventnor for more than 40 years, attracting anglers to the beach in the fall. All participating municipalities allow properly equipped 4-wheel-drive vehicles on the beach during derby season.

In past years, Longport’s beach was “too fragile” to allow vehicles, officials said, and this year, the borough is struggling to get the NJ Department of Environmental to approve its Beach Maintenance Permit, which also requires the municipality have an approved Beach Access Plan. Longport submitted its plan to the DEP in June 2018, but it has yet to be approved.

The borough was able to maintain beaches during the bathing season for safety reasons, but the borough could be fined if Public Works vehicles are on the beach without the necessary permit, Culmone said.

He said the derby is “not congruent to what the DEP wants.”

Having vehicles on the beach during hurricane season when erosion can cause feet-deep cliffs raises serious safety concerns, he said. Also, inexperienced drivers can get stuck in the soft sand, which could require tow trucks to pull them out, and although there are no ordinances regulating vehicle speed, drivers often speed across the beach, he said.

“I was hearing more complaints than I was hearing requests to get on the beach,” Culmone said.

He provided the commissioners with a packet of information, including sample ordinances and news reports, for their review.

“I am not in favor of this,” he said.

Engineer Richard Carter said the borough has several rock revetments where fishers can cast their lines and parking is readily available.

“That would make it easier for this year while you study the issue,” he said.

Although he is not totally against the idea, Commissioner Dan Lawler said this year is not the year to allow it.

“We can’t even get our Public Works on the beach for maintenance,” he said, noting there were too many issues to overcome before the tournament begins in two weeks.

Commissioner Jim Leeds said fishers could walk-on and park on the beach blocks during the off-season and lug their fishing equipment over the bulkhead and dune.

“This is the time of year for us to think about our Longport residents who want to enjoy the beach during the month of September without vehicles flying back and forth,” Leeds said. “There’s different sand on the beach now and I’ve seen our own beach patrol trucks get stuck…and these are drivers experienced with driving in the sand.”

Russo said he does not like the perception that Longport is an “elitist” community.

“These are public beaches,” Russo said. “There are 117 miles of beaches in New Jersey and every other town provides access.”

Russo provided fellow commissioners with a list of reasons to support it, stating that fishing is a “wholesome family activity.”

“Our city is not unique,” he said. “Sometimes the greater good takes precedence.”

The entrance fee for the derby is $25 and identifying derby pins and registration card, along with derby rules and regulations, can be obtained at the following sign-up/weigh stations:

Ray Scotts Dock – Margate
Ship Shop – Ventnor
One Stop Bait and Tackle – Atlantic City
RipTide Bait and Tackle – Brigantine
Bayside Bait and Tackle – Brigantine
Absecon Bay Sportsmen Center – Absecon
Tight Lines Bait and Tackle Somers Point
Point Bait and Tackle – Somers Point

In addition to getting a derby pin, fishers, who compete for prizes, are required to obtain a permit from the municipality after Sept. 17 showing they have the proper insurance and that vehicles are properly equipped with fishing and safety supplies. Ventnor and Margate do not charge for a permit. Fishing hours are sunrise to 10 p.m.

For more information, see Atlantic County Surf Fishing Derby on Facebook.

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

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