The Press of Atlantic City

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey lawmakers are considering a proposed law that would give fishing operations the same legal protections as farms.

The Garden State has had a right-to-farm law on the books since 1983, giving farmers the presumptive right to go about their noisy and sometimes smelly work routinely without interference from neighbors.

A measure that passed the state Assembly last month would give similar protections to fishing ports, commercial docks and fish-processing plants.

"It's a tense subject," said Gregory DiDomenico, president of the Garden State Seafood Association, a trade group that represents commercial fishermen, seafood processors, docks, markets and restaurants.

"These conflicts occur, whether it's a homeowner, a dock owner, a marina owner or a fish-house owner, or even a guy who has complaints in his neighborhood about starting his boat up," he said.

Like farming, fishing is not a 9-to-5 job. Fishing boats arrive at unusual times to unload their catches, he said.

New Jersey has six commercial fishing ports: Cape May, Atlantic City, Point Pleasant Beach, Barnegat Light, Middletown Township and Port Norris. Some of these ports, such as Cape May, are insulated from development by restaurants and other commercial businesses.

But in Ocean County, with a population of 569,000, coastal development around the Barnegat Bay has exploded.

"Where there are lots of people, there are bound to be some competing interests or competing uses," DiDomenico said.

For example, some fishing businesses were gentrified by new residential development in Wildwood's Ottens Harbor, Cape May County marina owner Ernie Utsch said.

"I can tell you, any place I know where they have tried to put residential into a commercial fishing operation has never failed to be a problem," he said. "At Ottens Harbor, when they put the condos in, you have to make a choice about what you want. The fishing industry moved out of Otten's Harbor. It just wasn't compatible."

Utsch owns Utsch's Marina in Cape May, which is more insulated from suburbia than other New Jersey marinas.

Along the Ocean Drive corridor of Diamond Beach between Cape May and Wildwood Crest are row upon row of marinas, docks, restaurants and fish-processing plants. But this concentration of fish-related businesses is no accident.

Fishing ports often share the same waterfront views prized by residential developers. The Lower Township Committee envisioned possible conflicts if the township gave in to development pressure.

"If condos open up next door to a fishing business, you're just asking for trouble," Mayor Mike Beck said. "We felt we had to protect the fishing industry. It's extremely valuable to Lower Township."

The committee created a marine-development zone. Residential construction in this zone is severely limited and the rules forbid construction of large tower-block condos that are cropping up along waterfronts in North Wildwood.

"You build a development next to an airport and the first thing people do is complain about the noise of the airplanes," Beck said.

Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matt Milam, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, sponsored the Assembly bill. State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, sponsored the Senate version, which is pending in the Economic Growth Committee.

Van Drew said a similar dispute arose in Dennis Township years ago when neighbors moved into a subdivision next to a farm and started complaining about its noise and early morning activity.

"Some people came to me and said we need to do something about the farm. They're up at 5 in the morning and starting tractors," he said. "You chose to live across the street from a farm."

Van Drew said the township passed a right-to-farm ordinance at the time. He sees a comparable situation with the fishing industry.

"As the shore changes, we've lost hotels, motels and in some cases marinas and other commercial areas to condominiums," Van Drew said. "Residential development is encroaching on it. We want to keep these businesses. They're so much a part of the fabric of southern New Jersey."

Under the right-to-fish bill, docks, commercial marinas and processing plants would enjoy the presumption that their daily operations are not a public nuisance. County agricultural development boards would mediate neighborhood disputes that arise, just as they do for farm complaints now.

The goal of the right-to-farm act is to reach an amicable solution and prevent costly and time-consuming lawsuits, said Ryan Allen, a senior planner and spokesman for the Ocean County Agriculture Development Board.

The complaints range from encroachments onto property lines to noise, he said. Mediation is the first step, but when that doesn't work, the dispute goes before the entire board for consideration, he said. If either party is not satisfied with mediation or the county board's decision, they can appeal to the state Agriculture Development Committee. Its decision would carry the weight of law in state courts.

Barring a satisfactory outcome, the matter can go to the state Appellate Court.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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