Wildwood beaches are famous for their sprawling coastlands, party atmosphere, and free admission — but that last bit could be changing in the next few years.
Mayors of all three of the Wildwood towns — Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest — are considering implementing beach tags or some other tourism fee as the cost of maintaining the beaches skyrockets and puts a heavy burden on property owners whose taxes pay for much of the upkeep. The Wildwoods are one of the few South Jersey beaches that don’t use beach tags.
“We already have a beach fee — it’s called taxes,” Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron said. “Most people complaining about beach fees are from out of town.” Wildwood has the highest real estate tax rates among the Cape May County beach towns.
Byron added that although the time for beach fees is “going to be sooner than later,” the concept is in its infancy and beachgoers should not expect to pay for tags in the 2021 season.
The population of the Wildwoods as of 2010 was under 14,500, a small percentage of the millions of people who frequent the area during the summer. Byron said the beaches saw some of their biggest crowds ever last summer during the pandemic as people looked for any way to get out of the house after months of quarantine. Even so, local businesses and eateries struggled to find staff and make profits while adhering to statewide virus restrictions.
Other than the basic costs of lifeguards, beach patrol, and cleaners, Byron said Wildwood must also pay for repairs to its famous boardwalk that will cost at least $60 million.
North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello added that his town — which has a very narrow beachfront — is facing hefty costs to fight erosion. However, he does not think that beach tags are the only option and said he is also considering some sort of tourist tax or other fee.
“We need to figure out a more equitable way of paying for beaches,” Rosenello said.
Over the last six years, North Wildwood has paid close to $15 million to combat erosion, according to Rosenello. In this year alone, the town is planning to spend $15 million on a storm pump project to protect the island from extreme weather and an additional $3 million to move sand to the beach to counter erosion. Rosenello said measures to protect the shore are going to get only more expensive.
Although Wildwood Crest Mayor Don Cabrera is unsure if tags or taxes are the right paths to take, he believes that regardless, the state government should be providing the Wildwoods with more funding.
“They need to step up,” Cabrera said. “There’s a critical need for tourism.”
Along with Atlantic City and Strathmere, the Wildwood towns have some of the only and most popular free beaches in the state. On various Wildwoods Facebook groups, beachgoers recoiled at the idea of fees at a place long known for its accessibility. Others complained that beach tags would be unfair due to the already high parking fees.
Lynn Kaiser McLaughlin has a house just outside the Wildwoods in Green Creek and said that although she could go to other beaches in Cape May, she chooses the Wildwoods because they are free. Like many other Wildwood visitors, she thinks the beaches should be kept free for everyone, especially young people and those on a limited budget.
“A lot of people do day trips with children because they can’t afford to stay down there,” she said. “To put [another] expense on them is not fair.”
But many Wildwood residents feel that beach tags would effect welcome change in their community.
Nicole Rockmacher’s family has owned a home in Wildwood Crest for three generations, and she and her husband, Seth, are about to move there full time. Rockmacher is frustrated with the beach’s overcrowding and upset by the large amounts of garbage she says are left by many day-trippers.
“The beach needs to give people accountability so they don’t leave their trash and walk away,” she said. Rockmacher and her husband often clean up empty cans, cigarette butts, and other garbage. “I’m paying extra for my enjoyment because others aren’t paying for anything.”
Lori Koykka spent four summers in her condo right along the beach and, like the Rockmachers, grew tired of cleaning others’ trash off of her lawn, especially while paying high property taxes. She feels that everyone who uses the beach should share in the cost of its maintenance.
“Every property owner I know is for beach tags,” she said. “They see the town being taken advantage of.”
Rosenello acknowledges “no one” wants to pay extra fees but says more money is vital for his and the other Wildwoods towns to survive.
“This little town is worth billions of dollars,” Rosenello said. “I think people appreciate what is here, and I think people are willing to pay a reasonable amount of money to protect and preserve it for future generations.”