N.J. Spars Over Free Beach Access Post-Sandy Federal taxpayers will pay the lion's share of the restoration for the Jersey shore damage caused by Sandy. But since most of those who will benefit are private landowners on the shore, one N.J. lawmaker wants to prohibit the shore towns from charging access fees to their public beaches.
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N.J. Spars Over Free Beach Access Post-Sandy

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N.J. Spars Over Free Beach Access Post-Sandy

N.J. Spars Over Free Beach Access Post-Sandy

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, some towns on the New Jersey shore are considering increasing beach fees to help restore their shoreline. But this has given some people the chance to voice their opinion that the fees to access public beaches should not exist at all. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Looking out over the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey, Tim Dillingham is struck by how much the pounding waves of Hurricane Sandy have changed the Jersey shore. Dillingham is executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group. Before the storm, he says, the Army Corps of Engineers spent years building up the beaches.

TIM DILLINGHAM: So they had a much higher profile. They were much more rounded. They would drop off at the water's edge and be very deeper. This beach now has been spread out. It looks like someone took their hand and kind of moved the sand out to the ocean.

SCHAPER: So rather than just pumping sand back up onto the beaches, Dillingham says public officials should rethink how they replenish the Jersey shore.

DILLINGHAM: We need to design the beaches to be sustainable, to be open to the public in a way that everybody can get to them, everywhere, and we need to design them so that they're ecologically sensitive and they provide for habitat.

SCHAPER: That part about being open and accessible to the public is important, Dillingham says, because the huge beach restoration cost will be shouldered by the public: 75 percent of it will likely come from federal taxpayers, with the state picking up a significant chunk too.

Yet, much of the beach restoration work will end up protecting private property. The relatively few beach areas now accessible to the public on the Jersey shore often charge fees of eight, 10, even 12 dollars a day for access to the beach.

JEFF WULKAN: I think that they're ridiculous. I mean I think the towns make enough money through taxes and fines and all this other stuff.

SCHAPER: Jeff Wulkan owns Bikini Barbers on the shore in Long Branch and says he's fed up with the beach fees and won't pay them. One of his employees, Jennifer Leotis, doesn't like them either, but says she pays up to go to the beach in nearby Manasquan.

JENNIFER LEOTIS: I go to Manasquan; it's almost $90 for the year. And I think it's kind of a rip-off, because it's not that nice at Manasquan.

SCHAPER: And both say the fees shouldn't go up to pay to restore the beaches. Here again is Jeff Wulkan.

WULKAN: Most of it's probably going to go to protect, you know, the homes of the super-wealthy people that have these multi-million dollar mansions on the beach. So you know, it's always a risk buying a house on the beach that something like this could happen.

SCHAPER: Wulkan and Leotis are hardly alone. In fact, there are similar sentiments in the New Jersey State Senate. Republican Michael Doherty says he's long been frustrated that New Jersey is one of the few states that allows communities to charge beach fees.

STATE SENATOR MICHAEL DOHERTY: The Jersey shore is the domain of single family homes and they really are not welcoming to outsiders and daytrippers coming in. They don't want you in their town. That's why there's no place to park, no place to use the restroom, and they charge you seven, 12 dollars just to get on the beach for a day.

SCHAPER: And Doherty says for communities to continue charging beach fees after Sandy is even more outrageous.

DOHERTY: They now have their hand out and they want us to send them hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to rebuild their beaches, yet when it comes time to enjoying the beaches, we're told we have to pay before we can step on the sand.

SCHAPER: So Doherty is sponsoring legislation that would make public beach access free in all Jersey shore communities that accept federal and state funding for shoreline restoration. But officials in the beach towns that collect those fees insist they are necessary. Here's Thomas Kelaher, mayor of Tom's River, New Jersey.

MAYOR THOMAS KELAHER: What we do with that money is that pays for the lifeguards, the beach cleaners, and the crossing guards along the highway leading up to the beach. And we just about break even every year with what we collect and what it costs us.

SCHAPER: Kelaher says if the state wants to pick up those costs, he'd support getting rid of the fees, but he says it wouldn't be fair to charge his town's property taxpayers more to cover those expenses, when mostly out-of-town visitors benefit. The bill banning beach fees is expected to come up for a vote in the New Jersey legislature in January.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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