May 14, 2013-  South Jersey surfcasters have claimed victory at Drag Island this week after learning that efforts to preserve access rights to this historic Somers Point walk-up hotspot have proven successful.

The Drag Island Access Preservation Association (DIAPA), together with the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) and its New Jersey chapter (RFA-NJ), was informed this week by Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) that walk-on access will continue at Drag Island once the State of New Jersey finishes completion of the new southbound Parkway bridge project at Somers Point, and that plans to completely demolish the Beesley’s Point Bridge are being modified to accommodate fishermen and nature enthusiasts alike.

According to RFA executive director Jim Donofrio, the plan to preserve the access rights enjoyed by New Jersey residents for the past 85 years includes a fishing pier extension on the south side of Drag Island which will extend into Great Egg Channel, with a portion of the Beesley’s Point Bridge maintained for walk-on access to Drag Island.  This all comes by way of ongoing political negotiations following months of public support and letter-writing by New Jersey anglers.

“I know sometimes folks get frustrated when things don’t happen in government immediately, but this is one particular access victory that would not have been possible without the efforts of government officials, both elected and those appointed, who helped fast-track this effort in Trenton,” Donofrio said.

“In addition to Sen. Van Drew who has long championed angler issues in New Jersey, RFA is thankful to the folks in the Christie Administration, particularly Commissioner Martin and his staff at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as well as the Department of Transportation (DOT) who got together and figured out a way to ensure progress with preservation,” added Donofrio.

Van Drew, who originally met with anglers back in February regarding Drag Island, gave credit to DOT Commissioner Jim Simpson, DEP Commissioner Martin, and Gov. Christie for approving the project.  “This couldn’t have happened without them. This project caps off an extraordinary commitment they have made to South Jersey. This truly will increase public access in a way that makes sense and does not infringe on residents’ property rights. Generations of fishermen and nature lovers will enjoy this spectacular area. This project is a win for residents and visitors alike,” Van Drew said this week in the Atlantic City Press.

“I would like to personally thank Senator Van Drew and the RFA for their tireless efforts in Trenton to ensure the enjoyment of shore based fishing and other nature related activities at Drag Island for generations to come,” said founding DIAPA representative and longtime RFA member Bill Shillingford.  “We are also thankful for the positive positions of the DEP and Division of Fish Game and Wildlife in preserving access to Drag Island. This is a good example of how groups working together for a common cause can get positive results.”

George Bucci, a founding member of DIAPA, overjoyed at the news, said “Being local to the area and having fished Drag Island over the years and now with my children, I thought the access issue was important enough for me to get involved to preserve access for everyone for future generations to enjoy. I cannot express how happy I am about the results here.”

Shillingford and Bucci both praised the efforts of another DIAPA founder, local attorney and avid angler Pat Martin.  “Without his sound legal advice and insightful guidance, I am not sure we would be where we are right now.”

“I am extremely pleased with the results here,” Martin said. “Senator Van Drew took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with us, genuinely listened to our concerns and believed in our cause. RFA also committed to our efforts. I want to personally commend the Senator and RFA for fighting in Trenton to preserve access to Drag Island on our behalf.”

RFA-NJ representative Greg O’Connell said the decision to protect public access at Drag Island may seem a minor victory for folks not familiar with this particular stretch of fishing area, but he explained that it’s a huge public access win for the state’s anglers.  “We’ve had so many meetings with the DEP in recent years where we’ve heard the pledge of no net-loss of access, so in the grand scheme of things, the preservation of Drag Island traditions helps set a major precedent for public access in New Jersey.”

The Atlantic City Press reported today that there would be parking on the Atlantic County side, which Van Drew said eventually could be expanded into “a wonderful recreation area.” Van Drew noted the new southbound parkway bridge over Great Egg Harbor Bay and Drag Island will also have an additional lane for cars and a separate path for bicycles, the only bike lane on the parkway.

“With this project, we are creating a more convenient and efficient way for residents to continue to enjoy our region’s beautiful coastal areas. I want to thank the anglers who worked on this issue and state officials who approached this idea with an open mind. This is what happens when we all work together for the good of the community,” Van Drew said.

Van Drew also reminded anglers that this could take some time to get accomplished, perhaps a couple of years.  “All the T’s have not been crossed and the I’s have not been dotted,” Van Drew told the Atlantic City Press.

O’Connell added that RFA-NJ will continue to monitor the progress of the initiative, but added that the pledge from Van Drew and the Christie administration together is great news for all New Jersey constituents.

“At a time when the state budget was being negotiated and an ongoing DOT project was well underway, to take time to help shepherd our cause through the proper channels in Trenton is proof that government does work when the people take the time to get involved,” O’Connell said.