By Tim O’Meilia
Spurred by the fears of oceanfront residents, Manalapan Police Chief Carmen Mattox has asked Palm Beach County recreation officials to close all of Ocean Inlet Park at sunset, including the south section in neighboring Ocean Ridge.
County Parks Director Eric Call said in a reply letter that closing the entire park “seems to be an extreme measure,” especially because the south jetty historically has been a popular spot for night fishermen.
Call asked for a meeting among Manalapan, Ocean Ridge, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and parks department officials.
Ocean Ridge and Manalapan residents have complained about crime in the park ever since budget cuts last year prompted the sheriff’s office to discontinue a permanent park ranger station at the park. Two armed robberies, two sexual assaults and two other serious crimes have occurred in the park since then, police say.
“There is a part of the community that can’t go outside after dark with any sense of security,” said Manalapan Commissioner Donald Brennan, who has complained about beachgoers trespassing on his oceanfront property.
The sheriff’s office has begun an extra patrol system where cruisers are dispatched to patrol the park periodically. Mattox and Ocean Ridge Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi said the additional patrols have been successful over the July Fourth and Labor Day holidays.
But the report of a possible gunshot or fireworks explosion has reignited fears. “I don’t think we’re well-protected,” said oceanside resident Dennis Hammond. “I don’t have the sense of confidence some of you have.”
In his letter, Call said the gunshot incident could not be verified and said criminal activity has not increased in the park since the park ranger unit was disbanded and the sheriff’s marine unit moved.
“It has become a hangout without a great presence of law enforcement,” Mattox told the Manalapan Town Commission at an Oct. 23 meeting.
Under an agreement with the county sheriff’s office, Manalapan police patrol the section of the park on the north side of the Boynton Inlet, including Bird Island. That section closes at sunset.
“We’ve put up signs, increased our ATV (all-terrain vehicle) patrol and made sure the gates are locked at 8 p.m. every night,” Mattox said.
“I’m making it uncomfortable for underage drinking or any illegal activity,” he said. “I want to have zero events, although that’s a pie-in-the-sky wish.”
The section of the park south of the inlet is within Ocean Ridge boundaries, and police answer emergency calls there, although primary jurisdiction remains with the sheriff’s office.
The extreme south end of the park also closes at dark, but the section of the parking lot near the boat slips and with access to the south jetty remains open.
Call said that a county employee would be living in the park soon to offer around-the-clock supervision, but Manalapan commissioners noted he would have no arrest powers and would have to call deputies like any other citizen.
Yannuzzi said it’s unlikely that county officials will close the entire park at night because of a 1985 agreement between the town and Palm Beach County. It calls for the park hours “not to be restricted” except in the far south end.
But the agreement also requires “adequate law enforcement” from the sheriff’s office.
At least one oceanfront dweller thinks the complaints are overblown. “The issue has been a mountain out of a molehill,” said Manalapan Commissioner Louis DeStefano, who lives immediately north of the inlet park. “I do not feel unsafe walking on the beach at 9, 10 or 11 at night. It’s an issue of perception.”