N.J. Beach Fees Face Ban as Sandy Aid Brings Call for Free Swims

Jersey Shore Beach Fees Debated for Towns Assured Sandy Aid
A bulldozer moves sand during repair work in Mantoloking, New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Hurricane Sandy destroyed Lucia Van Cleef’s $5 million, 10-bedroom oceanfront weekend retreat. With plans to rebuild, she wants New Jersey taxpayers to pay for higher and stronger protective dunes.

Those taxpayers can’t get on that sand unless they pay $12 to the borough of Mantoloking for the privilege.

New Jersey, unlike California, North Carolina and other states, doesn’t ensure citizens free access to its shoreline. State Senators Michael Doherty and Stephen Sweeney want to force towns to choose: They can have state or federal aid -- much of which will go to protect exclusive real estate -- or they can have beach fees.

“It only seems fair to ensure that everyone have the opportunity to enjoy free access to the beaches they will support and help rebuild with their tax dollars,” said Doherty, a Republican from Washington Township in Warren County.

Sandy, the lawmakers say, gives New Jersey an opportunity to resolve a decades-old complaint of tourists who find that 67 of the state’s 71 shore towns charge to swim. Inland residents have long resented having to pay to maintain beaches, then having to cough up for admission -- not to mention dealing with scarce parking and bathrooms, Doherty said.

Taxed Twice

Doherty and Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat who is Senate president, introduced legislation this month to require beaches replenished with state and federal money to provide free access, as well as bathrooms.

“Where taxpayers are paying for beach restoration, they shouldn’t be taxed a second time just to walk on the sand,” Sweeney said.

The hurricane that struck Oct. 29 battered oceanfront communities, splintering boardwalks and leveling homes along the state’s 127-mile coastline. Governor Chris Christie, a 50-year-old Republican, has put Sandy’s cost to New Jersey at $36.9 billion, including $7.4 billion to prevent future damage.

Christie, who plans to seek re-election next year, has vowed to rebuild “the Jersey shore of my youth” better than before. States and localities expect the federal government to reimburse at least 75 percent of their expenses.

Public Access

History’s biggest Atlantic storm has put the interests of shore homeowners on a collision course with the rights of visitors whose beach fees and tax dollars subsidize million-dollar views.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection requires public access to tidal waterways, though in practice that’s not always the case. The nonprofit American Littoral Society, a Sandy Hook-based coastal-conservation group, and other advocates have documented -- and sometimes sued over -- rights-of-way blocked by illegal fences, marked by “private” signs or otherwise inaccessible.

Because of Sandy’s destruction, state regulators and local officials no longer can say shore towns are built up, with no space for parking or new access points, according to Tim Dillingham, 51, executive director of the Littoral Society.

“There’s a new landscape, literally,” Dillingham said by phone Nov. 16. “We have the opportunity to do the right thing, which is to increase the public’s access to beaches they’re going to pay for.”

Beach Upkeep

Sweeney and Doherty expect their bill to come up for a vote in January. It would apply to towns that accepted aid after November, and would put New Jersey beaches on par with those in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina that don’t charge. It also would cut off localities from the revenue that, by New Jersey law, they must plow back into beach upkeep.

Mantoloking, whose yacht club lays claim to 10 Olympic athletes, has a year-round population of about 300, swelling to 5,000 in the summer. The median household income, $151,700 from 2006 to 2010, was 117 percent greater than the state average.

For visitors to Mantoloking’s beach, there are no restrooms, places to eat or change clothes, or shady areas. On-street parking is limited. A beach badge costs $12 for the season, and cheaper daily passes aren’t available.

Lucia Van Cleef and her husband, Scott, who owns a home-building company in Hillsborough, bought their Mantoloking house seven years ago and have taken steps to protect the dunes. She said she’d like to see them rebuilt higher and with large boulders at the base to keep them from washing away.

“After Sandy, I’m not sure where all this is going to come from,” Van Cleef said. “Whatever it takes, whatever amount of money, everyone’s going to have to do their part.”

Landmark Ride

In Belmar, Mayor Matt Doherty, who isn’t related to the senator, has promised to rebuild 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) of boardwalk, plus repair damage elsewhere, at no cost to locals. Out-of-towners will make up what FEMA doesn’t cover with $8 daily beach fees, a dollar higher than last summer, he said.

In Seaside Heights, where a roller-coaster track partially submerged in the Atlantic became emblematic of Sandy’s power, Republican Mayor Bill Akers said his town’s $5 daily beach charge, the lowest in Ocean County, pays for 50 lifeguards, police patrols, sanitation and sand raking.

“I don’t think our tax base would be able to absorb those fees,” Akers, 56, said in an interview Nov. 29, as he guided state lawmakers on a tour of ruined boardwalk.

Wildwood Free

A colleague on the tour, Thomas Kelaher, the 80-year-old Republican mayor of neighboring Toms River, said the crowds wouldn’t tolerate beaches like those in California, which doesn’t charge.

“They’re loaded with timber; they’re loaded with kelp and all that stuff,” Kelaher said. “It’s a disgrace.”

Only four of New Jersey’s 71 shore towns don’t charge beach fees: Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and Atlantic City, according to Wildwood Mayor Ernest Troiano Jr., 61, a Republican.

In his city of 5,300 residents, property owners pay about $1.5 million a year for beach upkeep.

“That’s something we take out of our pocket as a gift and incentive for tourists to come,” Troiano said by phone Nov. 30. Free beaches wouldn’t work everywhere, he said.

“I can understand,” he said of towns that rely on fees. “They’re actually being proactive keeping that share off their residents.”

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