Plenty of people remember when all of the beaches in South Jersey were free — no tags needed. That was the case until 1971, when Stone Harbor started charging a fee to use its beaches. Within five years, the towns of Ventnor, Margate, Longport, Sea Isle City and Avalon had followed suit.
The mayor of Ocean City had floated the idea of beach fees as early as 1937, according to the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger, but the city waited until 1976 to join the rush.
Beach fees — collected through the sale of daily, weekly and seasonal tags for access — have a powerful appeal for local government officials. The money raised can cover any beach-related expenses, freeing tax revenue to be used elsewhere in municipal budgets.
Towns often spend more than a million dollars a year on their beaches and much more on related services. Ocean City’s fees raise nearly $4 million and Cape May’s more than $3 million.
There aren’t many free beaches left in South Jersey. A state list includes Delaware Bay in Lower Township, Beesleys Point on Great Egg Harbor Bay and Jennifer Lane Bay Beach on Manahawkin Bay.
But the big three remaining Atlantic Ocean free beaches are Atlantic City, the Wildwoods and Strathmere in Upper Township. This year officials in the Wildwoods are again considering charging beach fees and if they do, Strathmere seems likely to follow them rather than stay free alone.
Wildwood public votes on beach fees were held in 1976 and 1981, and they were rejected both times. A third referendum was scheduled in 2013, but then withdrawn.
As beach maintenance costs rise and officials are pressed to restrain property taxes, the mayors of Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood are starting to discuss the possibility of an island-wide beach fee.
Back in 2013 we commended Wildwood officials for dropping plans for the fees. We agreed with local business owners and tourism officials who strongly opposed giving up the summer tourism marketing advantage of free beaches.
Last week, the Greater Wildwoods Hotel and Motel Association opposed beach fees again, especially after the punishing economic impact on tourism of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the fees wouldn’t be implemented until at least next year, and a strong rebound in Jersey Shore visitors seems likely this summer.
Even the advantage of marketing a free beach isn’t as clear now as it was several years ago.
The rising sea and sinking coastal land will keep increasing beach maintenance costs. And foregoing beach user fees entirely deprives oceanfront municipalities of significant revenue that could help maintain the rest of the town — important to visitors and residents alike.
A middle option is possible. The Wildwoods and Strathmere could implement beach fees and charge a substantially lower price than neighboring towns, keeping much of their appeal while getting significant fee revenue.
Beach fees probably are as inevitable as the higher costs of infrastructure and services on barrier islands. We wouldn’t be surprised to soon see free beaches only in Atlantic City, where a casino industry catering to visitors provides a very substantial revenue stream unavailable to any other municipality in New Jersey.