CREST HAVEN – What can one learn from a sign? The Dune and Beach Trail project on 44th and 48th Street in Avalon will soon answer that question with an introduction of 10, 16x24 inch signs. The purpose of these signs will be to inform and educate visitors on the dunes’ importance. But some residents find the project ironic and say that the actual placement of signs would be detrimental to the dunes themselves.
“This ill-conceived idea of placing commercial and vulgar signs to attract more tourists disturbs the unique experience of quietly embracing the natural beauty of one of our last pristine areas,” said Elaine Scattergood, an Avalon resident who spoke against the proposal at the Cape May County Open Space Review board meeting Oct.8. Scattergood quoted George Perkins Marsh to further emphasize her point, “‘Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord.’ Man should not be allowed to be a disturbing agent in the maritime forest of Avalon.”
Martha Wright, also an Avalon resident, opposed introduction of the signs by pointing to an area halfway across the world, “The Treetop Walk in Western Australia adopted a minimal approach to interpretative signs to reduce distractions and allow the site to speak for itself,” she said. “The sign trial was carried out to assess the impact on visitor knowledge of the natural aspects of the site. [It was found that] there was no significant difference in the post-experience knowledge scores as compared before and after the trail-side signs had been installed.”
“I really support knowledge,” Wright said. “It’s the signs I object to.” Wright went on to suggest that an educational app be developed that visitors could access while walking the Dune and Beach trail. “Look to the future and create a non-invasive digital legacy.”
“Not all people learn in the same way,” said Leon Will of Protect Avalon’s Dunes Inc. “Some people need to learn in the moment with words, not visuals. And hopefully the introduction of the signs will generate more traffic. What I see at times with national treasures is that people like to hide them. ‘You can’t walk on our beaches, trails, etc.’ We don’t want to hide the dunes. One of our primary goals is to protect the visual aspect of the trail. We’re talking about approximately 400 feet between the four signs on each trail and two at the trail heads.”
“I think it is important to educate people with the signs,” said Dr. Brian Reynolds, chair of Avalon Environmental Commission. “A self-guided experience is very important. The trails only have one tour a week and people have to sign up for them. That is not an ideal way for the public to understand the importance of the dunes to the New Jersey coastline.”
“I think learning about the maritime forest is a really neat aspect of this project,” said David Craig, an Open Space board member. “That’s something I could see taking my kids to.”
Mike McLaughlin, another Open Space board member, wanted to know, “Wouldn’t this bring an influx of people to the dunes, and wouldn’t that negate the protection of them?”
“Those trails at 48th Street already get a lot of traffic as it is,” responded Reynolds.
Further debate over whether developing an app would be an acceptable alternative to signage occurred. “Almost everyone these days has a smartphone,” said Wright. “If you think the have-nots are visiting Avalon’s dunes, you’re dreaming.”
After a closed session, the Open Space board members returned to vote 5-0 to accept Avalon’s proposal.
“I continue to hope the Borough and County will embrace the future and seek a non-invasive digital alternative to trailside signs,” said Wright. “Apply the grant money to develop a robust digital application which may be used on the trail, in our libraries and schools and on the web. I look forward to a time when the concerns of residents bear as much weight as the desire of institutions and organizations.”
As for the actual content of the proposed signage, the Environmental Commission is “still in the process of determining what that might be.”
Peter Lomax, an Open Space board member who recused himself from the Avalon vote, told the Herald, “2013 is the first year that Open Space has expanded its funding beyond simple land acquisition to include parks and recreation improvement and historic preservation. We are now looking ahead to new changes for 2014 where we hope for stronger public support for funding. But how does one demonstrate community-wide support?”
One of the board’s goals, going forward into 2014 is to first assess public support or opposition before making its recommendations for funding to municipalities. The Open Space Park and Recreation application form asks applicants making a request for funding to “demonstrate the level of community support for this recreation or conservation development project. Include letters or other documentation from municipal, county, community organizations, or other interested parties.”
The amount Avalon Borough requested of Open Space to fund the project is $488,555, which includes monies for a 39th Street playground.