Shore season is in full swing. With the arrival of summer, many Philadelphians leave the city and spend their time in towns up and down the South Jersey coast.
According to a 2018 economic impact of tourism report, the five Jersey Shore counties — Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May — received a total of 53.58 million visitors during 2018, accounting for more than 50 percent of the states’ total direct revenue from tourism that year.
For many Philadelphians, a week at the Shore is a tradition passed down through generations. It’s common for families to visit the same Shore town year after year. From Cape May to Brigantine, each Shore town has its own vibe and personality — ranging from Ocean City’s family-friendly vibe to Wildwood’s hard-partying atmosphere.
But for many tourists, a major difference when it comes to picking a Shore town is the ubiquitous beach tag.
Beach tags, which are a “proof of purchase” required by some beach towns to ensure that visitors pay for access to the sand and surf, are sold by municipalities at daily, weekly, and seasonal prices that range from $3 to $150, depending on which Shore town you’re visiting, the age of the person using the beach tag, and when the tags are purchased.
The existence of these tags is itself controversial, with some arguing that beaches are natural resources and should be free and others espousing the high cost of beach maintenance and public safety measures that are needed during peak tourist seasons.
The Inquirer Opinion section reached out to people on either side of the debate to learn more about their viewpoints on whether or not Jersey Shore beaches should be free.
On the Fourth of July, I was sitting on the North Wildwood beach with my family, when I noticed a brown mass, floating about 100 yards off the beach and coming closer to shore. It turned out to be reeds, broken off in the back bays and now washing in with the tide by the ton.
My son and I went over to investigate, pulling out a few plastic bottles to throw away. I noticed other people too, picking out snapped fishing rigs and baseball hats from the mess and carrying it back with them. It’s something we did, unconsciously, but in a town that doesn’t require beach tags, it feels a little more vital.
I’ve never supported beach tags and when asked to defend why, I interrogated myself a little. I consider myself an outdoorsman. I hike, camp, and fish. Sometimes, I pay fees to do those things and that doesn’t bother me a bit. I understand, fully, why Yosemite National Park has to charge money to get in and why my out-of-state fishing license in Pennsylvania is so pricey. I’ve accepted the whole death and taxes thing.
About a decade ago, I started going to Brigantine more often, and that beach does have tags. I went to Stone Harbor’s beach the day after Independence Day, too. Were they nicer? Cleaner? Better? I don’t really know. Perhaps. They certainly weren’t as crowded and I didn’t see any Delco flags there. Also, my beach in North Wildwood has bathrooms with plumbing and a great hot dog stand. In Brigantine, I recall using a portable toilet and in Stone Harbor I had to — sorry — use the world’s biggest bathroom.
Defenders of beach tags will likely say that their towns are always strapped for cash and the beach is a big drain on the budget, with cleaning, trash, and lifeguard costs. I get that too.
I don’t know how they make it work in the Wildwoods or in Atlantic City, the southern Shore’s other free beach. Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano contemplated adding beach tags in 2011 but didn’t. The beaches, he noted, are maintained through property taxes. But the Wildwoods and Atlantic City have one thing in common. They’re on the lower levels of the Jersey Shore’s economic strata and both Wildwood and Atlantic City have residents who live in poverty, a few blocks from the beach.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that my stance against beach tags is more of a philosophical one. You could call it social justice, with sand.
I like to think of the beach as “the commons,” a shared resource. It’s why people who live in quarter-acre spreads in the suburbs are willing to live in duplexes there, houses where they can open a window and nearly touch their neighbor’s house. Everyone crams a bit closer for a common good, the beach. And for the much-maligned Shoobies, day-trippers looking for sun and sand, a beach tag can be an impediment to that, a locked gate that wouldn’t happen in Central Park or Fairmount Park, here in Philly.
If you too hold fast to the belief that everyone deserves a free beach, pick up a piece of trash that isn’t yours.
Jason Nark covers the outdoors for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been going to the Wildwoods since he was an infant.
As a former Councilman, member of the Board of Directors for the Brigantine Chamber of Commerce and as a resident of Brigantine, N.J., I am in favor of beach tag fees. Beach tag fees are needed, sensible, and fair. Many may argue that our beaches are state land and as such, should not be subject to these fees, but that is impractical. In my opinion, beach tag fees are not high enough.
Beach fees are user fees. Only those who use the beach pay for it. They are also a regressive tax and if not levied, the burden would fall on ALL municipal taxpayers.
Purchasing a beach tag is a small investment for the benefit offered. For what one would pay for a single ticket to see a movie, a seasonal beach tag can offer months of fun and safe access to the beaches.
As a barrier Island, Brigantine, like all other beach communities, must maintain clean and safe beaches. This doesn’t just magically happen. Highly trained, skilled lifeguards are on duty to ensure public safety. Our Public Works Department works tirelessly, raking beaches every morning so visitors and locals can enjoy a clean, safe beach, free of debris each day. Additional public safety expenses are also incurred and then there is the issue of beach replenishment every few years. While beach replenishment isn’t an annual expense, it’s a gradual (and costly) maintenance item that is budgeted into the capital plan of each municipality, either spread over multiple years or causing a large lump sum expenditure the year the project takes place.
The cost of labor, equipment, and maintenance to do all of this is astronomical and partially funded by local taxpayers and supplemented by the state and revenue from beach tag sales. Revenue generated by beach tag sales is only part of the funding needed, but it does offset the costs and it creates a sense of responsibility among beachgoers.
If anyone could simply drive into town, head to the beach, and enjoy it without making a small investment, we would become a free public playground that people would take for granted.
It would be unfair for local taxpayers to solely fund these services if they’re sharing the benefits with others. Odds are that if the taxpayers at-large had to shoulder the full burden (a huge expense that other non-resort towns do not have), the municipal tax rates would rise so much that the resort towns would become less affordable. Many new home buyers would look elsewhere and there would be fewer residents and second homeowners. In turn, all of this would have a direct, negative effect on the local economy which is already seasonal and not year-round like non-resort towns. The negative effects would trickle down to the state and create a tremendous drain on billions of dollars New Jersey realizes in sales tax paid by tourists and visitors to its shore towns.
Some towns do not charge a beach fee. If you compare them to those that do, you’ll find a world of difference. When someone takes the time to visit City Hall, purchase a beach tag, and read the rules and regulations, there’s a sense of responsibility instilled that you don’t always find on free beaches.
Ken Schaffer Jr. is a former Brigantine Councilman and a member of the Board of Directors for the Brigantine Chamber of Commerce.