After $55 Million Fix, N.J. Hands Slice of Beach to Party Pier

  • ‘Jersey Shore’ town favors private developer’s expansion plan
  • Outcry in a state where fees, limited access define oceanfront

It’s cost U.S. taxpayers $55 million and counting to restore Seaside Heights, a 0.3-square-mile New Jersey shore town, after the state’s most destructive natural disaster. Soon a slice of its public beach will be gone forever, buried beneath a private amusement pier.

The construction project, the borough says, is key to maintaining the lucrative tourism vibe captured on “Jersey Shore,” MTV’s study of frisky young singles and their hot tub. Though new thrill rides will draw crowds, a boon to a town still recovering from Hurricane Sandy and a massive fire, it’s more development in the path of inevitable Atlantic Ocean storms.

Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, N.J.

Photographer: Wayne Parry/AP Photo

“How many more businesses do you need?” Matt DeRosa, a 33-year-old emergency dispatcher vacationing from Westchester, New York, said on Aug. 25 as he sat on a boardwalk bench. “In the off season, it’s not even going to be used.”

Visitors to New Jersey’s 127-mile (204-kilometer) shoreline pay as much as $10 to step on the sand, a practice unheard of in other East Coast vacation spots. Even those who’ve never set foot in New Jersey have a stake in its oceanfront, with taxpayers shouldering $9 billion so far in Sandy recovery aid, plus more than $1 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to replenish beach sand washed away over three decades.

Legal Challenge

“The public’s making investments that benefit the state,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocate that has filed a legal challenge to Seaside Heights’ transfer of one of its 16 oceanfront blocks to the owner of Casino Pier. “We have one little town making decisions that the entire public has invested in.”

Throughout the U.S., beach disputes can drag through courts for years, pitting rights of private property owners against the public’s, whose access to navigable waters is rooted in ancient English common law. 

In California, Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder Vinod Khosla has been fighting a lawsuit filed by advocates for Martins Beach, about 35 miles south of San Francisco, over 53 acres he bought in 2008 and closed to surfers and other visitors. In New Hampshire, with just 13 miles of oceanfront, the state’s highest court in May ruled that a couple couldn’t block residents of 100 neighboring houses from crossing their backyard to reach the beach.

Sandy Toes

In New Jersey, access to sand and surf, the core of the state’s $42.1 billion tourism industry, is increasingly under threat. Some towns ban oceanside smoking and eating, and debate ever-tougher parking ordinances that favor residents over day-trippers. Long Beach Island, where water-view homes fetch millions of dollars, is notorious for unauthorized no-trespassing signs falsely warning visitors from public beach entrances.

Republican Governor Chris Christie, 53, is fighting shore-front homeowners in court for easements that the Army Corps says it needs before work can begin to build protective dunes. It’s not just the tourism industry at stake: The four Jersey Shore counties have combined property value, for tax purposes, of $293.5 billion -- about a third of the state’s total.

Changing Tides

Sand pumped from the ocean floor, though, requires replacement about every four years, plus emergency repairs when storms strike. Year to year, funding gets less certain, as congressional Republicans object to the 66 percent federal cost share. Warmer ocean temperatures in the next century, meanwhile, will lead to stronger and more frequent typhoons and hurricanes worldwide, according to 2013 research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a journal of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group.

Seaside Heights, made famous by the drunken escapades of Snooki and her housemates, was devastated in October 2012 by Sandy. The Casino Pier’s roller coaster plunged into the ocean, becoming a symbol of the storm’s might. Funtown, a pier several blocks south, was badly damaged, and then destroyed a year later when fire swept the boardwalk.

Under a plan approved this year by the state, the Casino Pier’s owners intend to rebuild its amusements over sand instead of over water. As part of the deal, Seaside Heights is trading 1.4 acres of a public beach -- valued at more than $4 million -- for 67 acres of out-of-town wetlands, a parking lot and an historic carousel.

Budget Gap

The borough says it has no choice: Struggling with a smaller tax base, it asked the state this year for help to close a $2.7 million budget gap. In a town where just 3,000 people live year-round, the swap is “a critical way to stimulate the local economy,” according to a state filing.

“While we’re losing some beach, we’re also going to be able to pick up a lot of beach through the Army Corps project, so the public will be able to use that,” Christopher Vaz, the borough administrator, said by telephone. The out-of-town wetlands, he added, was the best conservation move. “We’re mostly asphalt,” he said.

Construction will start in September on the Casino Pier expansion, according to Maria Mastoris, a spokeswoman for the owner. Environmental rules made duplicating the original design too costly, she said, and too risky in the event of another storm.

“It’s always been a tourism town,” Mastoris said by telephone. “It’s definitely going to bring more tourism to us.”

Open Space

In legal papers filed Aug. 12 in the appellate division of Superior Court in Mercer County, the littoral society and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation claim the deal violates state land-preservation law.

The 67 acres offered in exchange for the beach are in Toms River, nine miles west of the ocean, and are “inexpensive, undevelopable and inaccessible wetlands” valued at about $280,000, according to a statement issued by the groups. The groups also criticized the inclusion of the carousel, a boardwalk staple since 1932 that’s valued at $2 million, saying that “nostalgic ‘things”’ can’t be substituted for a public resource.

One boardwalk visitor said the swap was worth it. Bill Boytim, a 77-year-old AT&T Inc. retiree from Toms River, recalled putting his two girls on the carousel “when they were babies,” he said in an interview on the boardwalk. Future families should have that experience, he said.

“When they heard that the horses were going to be sold off individually, they were crying,” Boytim said of his daughters, now in their 40s.

Others said their own memories were more tied to the oceanfront. DeRosa, the dispatcher from New York, was on a weeklong vacation with his girlfriend, Lisa DeRienzo, a 32-year-old teacher and owner of a nanny-referral service, comparing long-ago family holidays in Seaside. After Sandy, they said, New Jersey should hold on to whatever beach is left.

“You can’t make any more,” DeRienzo said.

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