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Wildwood towns consider beach fees

Wildwood towns consider beach fees

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Decommissioned boats are sunk off Beach Haven to add to an existing artificial reef.

WILDWOOD — Could the beloved days of free beaches in the Wildwoods be coming to an end?

Not for 2021, but at long last, beach tags could be coming to the Wildwoods.

Facing rising expenses, officials in Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood have started talking about the possibility. Mayors in each of the three towns say it would be irresponsible not to at least consider the option.

For Wildwood, the impetus is pending repairs to the Boardwalk, a project Mayor Pete Byron said will likely cost at least $60 million to $70 million. North Wildwood also will have to replace its Boardwalk, plus it faces a huge expense in restoring badly eroded beaches on the north end of the barrier island, according to Mayor Patrick Rosenello.

In Wildwood Crest, Mayor Don Cabrera said it is not fair for taxpayers to have to pick up the whole tab for maintaining and protecting the beach, including funding the Beach Patrol.

Should Wildwood institute beach tags?

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Each mayor said the discussions are in the early phases. They also agreed the move would have to include all three towns, with the tags being reciprocal among the communities.

The Wildwoods remain an outlier. Atlantic City and the Strathmere section of Upper Township also do without beach fees, but Upper Township is also considering imposing them. Township Committeeman Curtis Corson has said he would not want Strathmere to be the only area of the county to not require them, for fear of a huge influx into an area he says is already overcrowded in the summer.

Cabrera said he would not want to move forward without a referendum to gauge support from property owners. He said he regularly hears from constituents on the topic, some saying tags are long overdue, others saying they would never want beach tags in their community.

“I think it’s inevitable that it will happen eventually,” Cabrera said. “The question is when.”

Even with voter support, he said he would want to give visitors, business owners and residents at least a year’s notice before imposing beach fees; maybe two.

Five municipalities share the barrier island known as Five Mile Beach, including West Wildwood, which does not have an ocean beach, and the Diamond Beach section of Lower Township in the south end of the island.

When some Cape May County beach towns began requiring tags in the 1970s, the Wildwoods held off. Their free beaches have become a marketing tool, something Cabrera said should be considered before imposing a new fee.

But according to Byron, new funding sources must be found.

“We need something that’s going to be a constant flow of income that maybe we can bond against,” Byron said.

Legally, beach tags are a user fee. The money raised is supposed to cover the expense of maintaining the beaches, not offset property taxes or fund other priorities. But North Wildwood spends more than $1 million a year on maintaining its beach, money Rosenello said could be used elsewhere if beach-fee revenue covered that expense. There is also the expense of maintaining the Beach Patrol and the additional time police, public works and other city departments spend on the beach each summer.

The money also could help shore up the badly eroded area along the inlet, he said.

“For North Wildwood, the amount of money that we’re spending on shore protection has really sucked all of the money out of all of our capital projects for the past couple of years,” Rosenello said.

The beach is used by millions of people, he said, but paid for by local property owners.

No one firmly committed to supporting beach fees for Wildwood. Rosenello said the towns were also looking at tourism taxes and other options.

“What we have to figure out is how do you fairly spread out the cost of maintaining and operating major tourism attractions and infrastructure,” he said.

There are other considerations, Cabrera said. His borough has trouble finding qualified seasonal workers. Imposing beach fees would mean creating a new infrastructure and hiring people to sell and enforce the tags.

Ocean City spends about $400,000 a year on beach tag regulations. In a typical year, the city brings in close to $4 million, according to budget documents. Cape May brought in more than $3 million in 2019. Most towns saw a slump in sales last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Towns throughout Cape May County charge between $20 and $40 for seasonal beach tags, with most offering a break for tags bought before the start of summer. Daily and weekly tags also are available.

According to local historian Fred Miller, beach fees were under discussion in Ocean City as far back as the 1930s but were not required on the beaches until 1976. Stone Harbor was the first South Jersey town to require beach tags in 1971, but brass beach badges began to appear farther north in 1937, according to a Press story published in 2009.

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