Superstorm Sandy caused massive beach erosion and damage to the Jersey shore. Some people say the beach restoration work, which will largely be paid for with federal tax dollars, will mostly help to protect expensive homes for the wealthy — people who have free access to the beach — while most communities would still be charging fees for public access.
At an oceanfront park in Long Branch, N.J., Tim Dillingham looks out over the beach in awe of how much the pounding waves and high waters of Hurricane Sandy have changed the Jersey shore.
Dillingham is the executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group. Before the storm, he says, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent years building up the beaches by pumping sand onto them.
But that shouldn't be a solution to restoring the shore, he says.
"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 they're ecologically sensitive and they provide for habitat," Dillingham says.
The huge beach restoration cost will be shouldered by the public: Seventy-five percent of it is likely to 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 $8, $10 and even $12 a day for access. And some towns are considering hiking those fees to help pay for the renovations.
Jeff Wulkan owns Bikini Barbers, a barbershop just off the beach in Long Branch. He says he's fed up with the fees and won't pay them. "I think that they're ridiculous," he says. "I mean, I think the towns make enough money through taxes and fines and all this other stuff."
One of his employees, Jennifer Leotis, isn't a fan of them either but says she pays up to go to the beach in nearby 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," she says.
And both Leotis and Wulkan say the fees shouldn't go up to pay for restoration costs.
"Most of it's probably going to go to protect the homes of the superwealthy people that have these multimillion-dollar mansions on the beach," says Wulkan. "So their houses don't get destroyed, you know."
Wulkan and Leotis are hardly alone. In fact, there are similar sentiments in the N.J. state Senate.
Republican Sen. Michael Doherty says he has long been frustrated that N.J. is one of the few states that allow communities to charge beach fees. "The Jersey shore is the domain of single-family homes and they really are not welcoming to outsiders and day-trippers coming in," Doherty says. "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 the day."
And Doherty says for communities to continue charging beach fees after Sandy is even more outrageous.
"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," he says.
In response, 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 some officials in beach towns that collect the fees oppose the measure. Thomas Kelaher, mayor of Toms River, N.J., insists they're necessary. "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," Kelaher says. "And we just about break even every year with what we collect and what it costs us."
Kelaher says if the state wants to pick up those costs, he'd support getting rid of the fees. But it wouldn't be fair to charge his town's property-tax payers more to cover those expenses when mostly out-of-town visitors benefit, he says.
The bill banning beach fees is expected to come up for a vote in the N.J. Legislature in January.