In a dispute with shorewide implications, the Monmouth County community just south of Asbury Park decided this month to abandon its beaches rather than comply with a court order to reduce its beach-access fee to $3.25 a day.
In response, the Borough Commission voted 2-1 two weeks ago to stop providing lifeguards, maintenance or other beach services, prompting a controversy in Belmar that could drive the mayor from office.
The confrontation over Belmar's oceanfront is the hottest development in a struggle this spring that has seen the state Department of the Public Advocate successfully bargain down beach fees in three other Monmouth County towns while state legislators lock horns over the broader issue of who should set fees up and down the coast..
These rough waters on the shore follow a landmark ruling last summer by a Monmouth County Superior Court judge aimed at reducing the beach-access fees charged by Belmar and other oceanfront communities.
But beach fees are as much a part of the Jersey shore as Springsteen and Lucy the Margate Elephant. They won't just fade away like a tan in September.
"Most of the outrageous fees have been reduced, but we're still up there in terms of beach fees' being charged," said John P. Thurber, a staff attorney in the public advocate's office. "They're still significantly higher than in other states."
The highest daily beach fee, state officials said, is the $4.50 charged by Ocean Grove in Monmouth County. Nearby beaches in the largely residential communities of Monmouth and Ocean Counties tend to assess relatively high fees while the fees tend to descend as the coastline heads south.
Six communities, state officials say, charge no fee at all: Atlantic City, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, North Wildwood, and Upper and Lower Townships on the Delaware Bay in Cape May County.
"If they can do it, why can't some of the beaches that are claiming poverty?" asked Al Drake, spokesman for the public advocate's office.
The legal skirmishing began in 1987 - after Belmar's daily beach fee reached $8 per person - with the advocate's office suing the borough as well as Avon, Spring Lake, Sea Girt and Bayhead.
The tussle led to last year's ruling by Judge Alvin Y. Milberg that Belmar's fees were excessive and discriminatory. The public advocate's office has used the judge's decision to bargain down fees in three of the other towns - Avon, Spring Lake and Sea Girt. Some state officials - as well as shore regulars - had hoped the court ruling would set an accepted precedent for all beach communities.
Like Jaws, however, the uproar on the shore is back. In a new decision, Milberg ruled this spring that Belmar's revised fee of $4.25 a day was still too high and that $3.25 would be sufficient to reimburse the borough for maintaining the beaches.
Belmar Mayor Maria G. Hernandez counters that Milberg's order could create a financial crisis. On summer weekends, she said, Belmar's population jumps
from 6,000 to 60,000. That surge affects more than the beach. Hernandez says the borough has to add police officers to direct traffic and keep rowdies in line as well as increase street repairs and litter pickups.
The beach fee, she said, won't cover these costs. And these costs total about $1 million a year, she said.
Her ideal fee would be $6 on the weekend and $3 during the week.
"Our taxpayers have to subsidize the state-tourism industry," she said, echoing an argument made up and down the shore. "People on low and moderate or fixed incomes are being forced right out of their houses. . . . It's just totally unfair."
But the public advocate's office, which considers Belmar a beachhead in the fight for affordable tanning, says that Belmar has previously abused its beach
revenues by using them for nonbeach services.
"Belmar (is) resisting any outside attempt to establish what a reasonable fee is," Thurber said. "They just don't seem to understand they can't (set) any fee they want to."
To keep the beaches operating, the public advocate has threatened to drag the borough back to court.
That is, if Hernandez's political opponents don't drive her from office first or force her to reverse the abandonment of the beaches.
Earlier this month, the Belmar Chamber of Commerce convened an emergency meeting and then demanded the resignation of Hernandez and one other borough commissioner. Political opponents have launched a petition drive to recall the mayor from office and, organizers said, have gathered signatures of at least 1,300 people - far more than the 25 percent of registered voters needed to force a vote next month.
Her local critics share the view that the public advocate and the courts have been miserly. But after three summers in which fears about ocean pollution washed away much of their business, local entrepreneurs say that Belmar cannot afford to abandon its beaches this year.
"In order to get our way, the commissioners of this town have involved Belmar and all Jersey shore communities in a fight that is not winnable," said Dirk Reitsma, an opponent of Hernandez's and owner of DJ's Cycles.
Four dozen bicycles were lined up on the sidewalk outside his Main Street shop. He said that he relied on beachgoers or residents who cater to tourists to rent about half of these - and that he had no intention of losing this business.
"The beaches will open; I'll tell you that right now," said Reitsma, motioning toward the ocean with hands smudged with bicycle grease. "Even if I have to go down there and clean the beaches myself."
As the tanning index has increased during the last month, so has the temperature of some lawmakers 50 miles to the east along Interstate 195 in Trenton.
Calling the higher beach fees abusive, State Sen. Gerald R. Stockman (D., Trenton) has launched his own offensive, sponsoring a controversial bill to cap the assessment in all towns at $2 a person. The proposal, before a Senate committee, would exempt senior citizens and children under 12 from any charge.
He said that towns could apply to the state Department of Community Affairs for permission to boost their fees if the $2 charge was insufficient to cover legitimate beach costs.
"I've always felt uncomfortable about beach fees to get on a beach," Stockman said. "It's one more piece of evidence of the loss of access that society is creating . . . while the rich and well-off are able to obtain and enjoy more."
Stockman's bill faces competition in the legislature from a proposal sponsored by two shore lawmakers, Assemblymen Daniel P. Jacobson and John A. Villapiano, both Monmouth County Democrats.
Their bill would not cap beach fees. Rather, it would turn that task over to public-finance experts in a new state bureau, thus taking the public advocate out of the fight. Jacobson said the advocate's office had failed to treat the shore towns fairly.
Though New Jersey towns have charged fees for decades, some lawyers say that the public's right to the oceanfront access dates back even further, all the way to Roman times, when everyone - except for slaves - had a shared right to the beaches.
Now, however, New Jersey's summertime dues are spreading to distant shores. And with them, the fight over turf and surf.
In Florida, the battle over beach fees has centered on Volusia County, the region around Daytona Beach on the state's east coast.
There, a muffler-maven-turned-county councilman - who changed his legal name to Big John - has become the self-proclaimed "father of the toll." He sponsored a fee structure three years ago that includes a $10 annual charge for county residents and $25 annual charge for foreigners, as he calls everyone else.
And where did Big John first learn of beach fees?
Growing up in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
1990 BEACH-ACCESS FEES
At selected Jersey shore communities.
BEACH DAILY WEEKLY SEASONAL (1) SEASONAL (2)
Cape May $2 $6 $8 $10
Wildwood Crest 0 0 0 0
Wildwood 0 0 0 0
North Wildwood 0 0 0 0
Stone Harbor N.A. 5 6 9
Avalon N.A. 5 6 9
Sea Isle City N.A. 5 6 9
Ocean City 2 5 8 10
Margate N.A. 3.50 5 (3) 10
Atlantic City 0 0 0 0
Surf City 2 7 11 14
Loveladies N.A. 3 7 (4) 10 (5)
Seaside Heights 2-3 (6) N.A. 25 25
Sea Girt 3.50 N.A. 40 40
Belmar (7) 3.25 N.A. 50 (8) 50 (8)
Ocean Grove 4.50 N.A. 47.50 (9) 50 (10)
(1) If purchased before June 1.
(2) If purchased after June 1.
(3) $3.50 for senior citizens.
(4) If purchased before June 15.
(5) If purchased after June 15.
(6) Fee is $2 on weekdays and $3 on weekends.
(7) Belmar plans to provide no beach services and charge
no beach fees, pending resolution of a court case.
(8) $10 for senior citizens.
(9) If purchased before May 15.
(10) If purchased after May 15.