Legislation to ban beach tag fees stirs anger among Shore officials

Posted: November 24, 2012

Hurricane Sandy has resurrected New Jersey's perennial battle of the beach tag, with a new twist.

State Sen. Michael J. Doherty (R., Somerset) said last week he planned to submit legislation requiring any Jersey Shore community accepting public funding to make storm repairs to give free beach access and provide restrooms to the public.

Shore town officials, who say they depend on tag revenue to maintain beaches, called Doherty's proposal everything from "clownish" to "moronic" after the Oct. 29 storm that wiped out entire beach communities and whose damages will likely creep into the tens of billions.

Experts say it could be years, possibly decades, before parts of the Shore - and the state's $38 billion-a-year tourism industry - fully recover.

Doherty, who has seen the coastal devastation on television but not in person, doesn't dispute Sandy's impact on coastal communities or the need for assistance in rebuilding. But any financial support, he said Monday, should come with a caveat.

"Public dollars must be spent for the maximum benefit of all citizens," contended Doherty, who represents Warren, Hunterdon, and Somerset Counties in northwestern New Jersey, where an aide said constituents had responded positively to his proposal.

The beach tag system "unfairly limits access to a public resource that's been the beneficiary of a great deal of federal investment," Doherty said.

Officials in Shore towns said they used beach tag revenue to clean, maintain, rebuild, and guard the beaches that so many state residents and tourists enjoy. In fact, they said, the fees generally don't cover all those costs.

Doherty "must be a total idiot," said Mayor Joseph Mancini of Long Beach Township in Ocean County, among the hardest hit by Sandy. "That's like saying that if any state or federal money is used to fix the Garden State Parkway or the Turnpike, then we shouldn't have tolls."

Long Beach Township's beach patrol, one of the largest in the country with 220 lifeguards, eats up the municipality's entire beach tag income, Mancini said. Local taxpayers cover the balance of beach maintenance costs.

Avalon, in Cape May County, which sustained some beach damage, spends $700,000 a year in lifeguard salaries and $900,000 on debt service for 14 beach-replenishment projects the town paid for over the last two decades, Mayor Martin Pagliughi said.

Beach tag sales help defray some of the costs to maintain Avalon's five-mile beach, but not all of them.

"This guy is totally out of touch with what's happening along the Shore right now and with the state of New Jersey," said Pagliughi, whose town successfully sued the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2009 to keep the state from withholding money from beach towns not in compliance with what Avalon called excessive beach-access requirements.

If beach tags were outlawed, Shore municipalities would need some other way to pay for basic beach safety and maintenance, Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Vincent Barrella said.

Barrella said he spoke with Doherty on Monday to urge him to include in his bill a requirement that the state give back 1 percent or 2 percent of the sales tax it collects in Shore counties as a way to offset those costs.

Doherty said that though he thought Barrella's idea was good, he was unlikely to include the wording, noting that "you can only do so much in one bill."

"But the money has to come from somewhere to take care of the beaches," Barrella said. "We have all the infrastructure costs, but we get none of the benefit of the revenue."

William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, called rebuilding the Shore a "moral obligation."

"Doherty's proposal is insensitive, quite frankly, considering what the mayors and governing bodies and all the residents of the Shore have been going through during this disaster," Dressel said. "It's way too early for anyone to be talking about who pays for what . . . I think if he were actually exposed to the tragic devastation along the Shore in one of the worst disasters anyone has ever seen, he may have a different reaction."

Doherty insisted this was precisely the time for such a discussion.

"We need to break the mold, to change it," he said. "We have a lot of artificial - and real - barriers in place to keep people from getting out to that beach that makes the Jersey Shore look like the Catskill Mountains of the 1950s, not the Miami Beach of 2012. We need to decide if that's the model we want to keep and getting rid of beach tags is good place to start."

Next would be replacing the Shore's single-family homes with high-rise condos up and down the coast "like they have in Myrtle Beach or Miami Beach," Doherty said.

"That would give more people actual access to the beaches in New Jersey," Doherty said. "If the Shore really is an important economic engine, then we're not maximizing out best asset. We need an architectural structure that can allow more people to come in."

Not everyone agrees.

"He should mind his own damn business," Eleanor Bates, 67, said Monday after she spent the day scraping a hard coating of sand deposited by Sandy from her concrete driveway in the Gardens section of Ocean City. "This has been my home for almost 70 years and I'm not leaving until they carry me out in a box."

"The Shore has been changed forever by that terrible storm. It doesn't need any more change . . . he can move to Miami Beach if he wants high-rises," Bates said.


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382, jurgo@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at www.philly.com/downashore.

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