Much of the forum was spent discussing bills related to improving the environmental degradation of Barnegat Bay caused over the last two decades by storm water runoff contaminated by lawn fertilizer. The increased amount of nitrogen and phosphates in the water is creating algae blooms, spawning widespread jellyfish intrusion, and killing off vital plant and animal life in the bay.
But it was bill S-2171, under consideration by the Senate committee - which would permit the governments of Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties to assume control and responsibility for the operation and maintenance of ocean beaches along New Jersey's 127-mile coastline - that drew a crowd of politicians and beach-access advocates.
"There isn't one municipality that wants the county to take over its beaches," Cape May County Director of Operations Michael Laffey said of his county's 14 beach towns. "And, as a county, we wouldn't know where to start."
During the hearing, Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), chairman of the committee and cosponsor of the bill along with Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R., Somerset), repeatedly called the measure a "permissive" bill - vs. a mandatory one - that would allow a municipality to participate in the plan only if it chose to.
"I think what this bill does is give municipalities and counties the permission to, for the first time, discuss the way we deliver beach services in this state," Smith said. "I think it would be healthy to look at how some of these other coastal states, California and Florida, run their beaches. There isn't just one way of doing something, and having a discussion about it isn't a bad idea."
Officials who testified in opposition said handing over beach operations to counties would create an additional layer of governmental bureaucracy. And, they insisted, each town already knows best how to manage its beachfront.
"This one-size-fits-all approach," said Spring Lake Mayor Jennifer Naughton, "doesn't make sense to me. . . . Each municipality is so different from its neighbor. We do a good job running our own beach because we live next to it, we know it, it's our beach."
Naughton said her town has spent about $1.5 million a year operating its beach and has collected about the same in beach fees.
Smith asked Naughton and other testifying Monday to submit copies of their beach-management budgets so the committee could analyze the figures.
One mayor asked the committee to add a "sunset provision" to the bill - if no towns participate after a set amount of time, the bill would be retired.
"I think there is a fear this could be a springboard for something else," said Ocean County Freeholder Deputy Director John C. Bartlett Jr.
When the bill was up for a vote last month by the Senate environment committee, Bartlett and his colleagues crafted a resolution against the legislation, noting that all four beach counties shared "core opposition issues" with it.
Advocates say the plan could significantly reduce the cost of staffing life guards and other beach-safety personnel, make beach replenishment and maintenance cheaper, and eventually lead to reduced beach fees or a statewide tag that could allow beachgoers to go to any beach in New Jersey for one fee.
John Weber, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation's Jersey Shore chapter, said a countywide or statewide beach badge could allow more people around the state to use more beaches.
"A surfer or a fisherman will go all over looking for the best spots," Weber said. "If you could reduce the cost of that, you could actually have more people utilizing the beaches in the state."
After more than an hour of discussion on the proposal, Smith said the measure would be tabled at least until the August joint session, so experts from California and Florida could testify about how counties in those states operated fee-free beaches.