LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N.J. — New Jerseyans have to put up with taxes, tolls, toxic waste and, occasionally, Snooki. So an occasional trip to the beach is all that keeps some folks here sane.
Now officials in the nation's most densely populated state are rewriting public beach access rules that could make it easier for well-to-do towns to keep out-of-towners off their beaches — and a sandstorm is brewing.
The state says it had to act and give more local control over access after a court decision struck down more stringent rules that spelled out uniform standards for each shore town. The state feels it can accomplish more by working with shore towns and giving them flexibility rather than dictating a "one-size-fits-all" access policy to them.
Beach badges only?
But many beachgoers fear the new rules, if adopted, would reward the very people who have made it so hard for outsiders to reach the beach for decades.
Joe Woerner, an official with the Jersey Shore Surfrider Foundation, said he was handcuffed as a teenager 20 years ago as he came out of the ocean with his surfboard. He was taken to a police holding cell in Sea Girt after crossing a hundred yards or so of sand without a beach badge.
"I was a 15-year-old boy arrested for using the ocean," he said. "These are the kind of people who will be making our rules."
Most New Jersey beach towns require surfers to buy and wear beach badges costing anywhere from $5 to $12 a day, regardless of how long they are on the sand or in the water. Woerner's charges were eventually dropped, but not before "a bunch of people who own places on the beach gave me grief about being on the beach without a badge and how surfers were what's wrong with our town."
Attack of the tourists
Oceanfront homeowners like Dorothy Jedziniak of Ship Bottom feel there's already more than enough access to beaches in her corner of Long Beach Island.
"We are being attacked with tourism, business and inundation," she said at a public hearing on the plan, appealing that state officials stand firm and implement the new rules, which she feels would lessen the influx of visitors.
"We have a beautiful island," she said. "I ask you, please: hang onto it."
New Jersey is one of a tiny handful of places in the United States that makes people pay for the privilege of dipping their toes in the surf or spreading a blanket on the sand. Under a legal doctrine dating back to the Roman Empire, the ocean, bay and river shorelines are to be open forever to the public.
In practice, though, it doesn't always work out that way. Well-to-do oceanfront homeowners fear an invasion of tourist hordes, with their noise, litter, loud colors and louder radios. Inland residents resent having to pay with their tax dollars to maintain beaches that officials in some shore towns make it hard for the public to use.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found 48 percent of New Jerseyans feel shore towns make it too hard for the public to use beaches, while 43 percent said the current level of access is OK. They also overwhelmingly said they want the state to mandate bathrooms near the beach — something the new rules don't require.
Beach access advocates note that almost all of New Jersey's progress over the last 50 years in ensuring outsiders' beach rights has come through costly, draw-out litigation — often driven by the state itself. That's why many are so upset that the state is relinquishing the stick in favor of the carrot.
Tourism is a $35.5 billion industry in New Jersey; 67.8 million people visited the state last year, many of them flocking to its beaches. Most shore towns realize they're dependent on tourism to keep restaurants, grocery and liquor stores, gas stations and other businesses afloat, and to hold down permanent residents' property taxes. Shore tourism and higher sales tax receipts also benefit the state.
But some shore towns seem to be just fine with mostly locals on their sand, and disagreements over who can and should use the beach sometimes take on elements of class warfare.
Mantoloking, about 50 miles north of Atlantic City, is one of the wealthiest towns in New Jersey — a quarter of its 423 permanent residents list their occupation as "corporate executive" and more than 50 homes there are worth $2 million or more.
The town was about to spend $900,000 in 2007 to buy property for beachgoers' parking and a public bathroom but residents persuaded the borough council to back down. One property owner dismissively mentioned how Mantoloking might become like other, less-tony resort communities if it encouraged more of the public to come, adding, "when you sleep with dogs, you pick up fleas."
Some shore towns use tactics like eliminating or severely restricting parking, not providing rest rooms, and banning food and drink from the beach. That places some beaches off-limits to anyone but locals who can walk to the beach, then back home to eat or answer nature's call. For decades, Bay Head's beaches were legally off-limits to anyone but residents, until a court forced them to admit anyone who buys a badge.
Public parking problem
In Mantoloking, beachgoers can only park their cars on public streets for two hours. In parts of Long Beach Island like the Loveladies and North Beach sections of Long Beach Township, many pathways to the shoreline are lined with signs warning, "Private drive. No public beach access."
In Sea Bright, there's little if any on-street parking along much of the sea wall taking up a good chunk of the oceanfront. Rows of privately owned beach clubs have posted signs on the sand seeking to keep non-members out — even though they signed a legal settlement in 2009 with the state attorney general's office over beach access, calling for the public to be able to use 60 percent of those beaches, up to 150 feet from the shoreline. The state had sued, saying the clubs were benefiting from taxpayer-paid sand for beach restoration, yet wrongfully excluding the public from all but a 15-foot-wide strip at the water's edge.
Bob Martin, New Jersey's environmental protection commissioner, says the state had to change the rules because an appeals court in 2008 struck down rules requiring public access points every quarter-mile along the shore, parking and bathrooms. The south Jersey beach town of Avalon sued, saying the state overstepped its bounds by requiring too much public access, and unreasonable requirements like 24-hour access to beaches and marinas.
Martin said the administration of Gov. Chris Christie "believes that public access is a fundamental right for the people of New Jersey. What we're trying to do with these regulations is enhance public access. In the state of New Jersey, 95 to 98 percent of our 127 miles of oceanfront is accessible to the public. We've counted over 1,000 access points to the shore. We seem to focus on two or three towns we have problems with. We need to look at the big picture."
Martin said he plans to "tweak" the proposed rules to more clearly spell out after-hours access rights for two of the groups who complained the loudest: surfers and anglers.
"If you're talking about keeping the teenage parties off the beach at 3 a.m., that's one thing," he said. "Keeping fishermen off the beach just before dawn is quite another."
James Hill, a suburban Philadelphia resident, says he spends 95 percent of his free time fishing at the Jersey shore.
"These beaches rejuvenate and bring life to the people who love them," he said. "To lose access to that would be devastating."
Mayors of several shore towns, including Long Beach Township, Avalon and Stone Harbor, praised the new approach, and indicated a willingness to work cooperatively with the DEP in drafting local access plans.
But officials acknowledge there is only so far they can push shore towns, noting that things like on-street parking ordinances, and rules on what can and can't be brought onto the beach remain under the control of local officials. DEP officials said they have begun working with towns that have long been the source of complaints, including Mantoloking, Sea Bright and Long Beach, to try to negotiate improvements instead of insisting on them.
The effort is bearing mixed fruit. Long Beach Township is adding about 135 new public parking spaces — but all but 15 or 20 are in the more densely populated southern part of town, and not in the much less crowded Loveladies or North Beach sections. That's where scores of signs warn outsiders to stay away, proclaiming "Private Drive, No Public Beach Access."
Long Beach Township, about 60 miles east of Philadelphia, constitutes 10 percent of New Jersey's coast, and has 168 public access points. Mayor Joseph Mancini says his town is doing more than its share of making the coast accessible to visitors, but says he doubts many will want to use Loveladies beaches because there are no public bathrooms or places to buy food or drinks.
During emotional public hearings on the plan, that sort of suggestion — these beaches over here are better for most people, while those over there are more suited for others — drew comparisons to segregation-era separate-but-equal policies involving segregated drinking fountains, schools and buses.
Lance Carsillo drove 150 miles round-trip from the Philadelphia suburbs and waited three hours to speak at the final public hearing, to ask New Jersey officials to reconsider their plan to give shore towns more power over public access.
"One-size-fits all is not a solution, but at least it's a guarantee for people like me who will probably never be able to afford an oceanfront home," he said. "Access is for people who can afford it, not people like me who drive and hour and a half to come fish."
Martin, the DEP commissioner, said the new rules are an attempt to apply "common sense" to a rulemaking system that always imposed a one-size fits all approach on a diverse shoreline.
"I'd much rather have a cooperative group of mayors than force them to do something," he said.
And that's what worries people like Woerner, the 36-year-old Asbury Park man who ran afoul of authorities as a 15-year-old surfer.
"We hear about 'flexibility' and 'common sense,'" he said. "You know where we heard a lot about that? When we deregulated the banks. How did that work out for America?"
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