Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and State Sen. Michael Doherty (R., Somerset) are right. Shore towns should stop charging fees for access to beaches that they're getting help from the state and federal governments to rebuild.
But the senators don't go far enough.
New Jersey's beaches should be folded into the state park system, so the state, instead of the towns, can be fully responsible for overseeing beach cleaning, maintenance, and even providing life guards.
If the senators need a good model for that, they need only look north to New York, where they will find Jones Beach State Park, which was built on Long Island by the visionary but controversial Robert Moses. Because Jones Beach is a state park, there are no disputes with local officials over who should provide beach access or oceanfront restrooms and parking. The state takes care of that.
Jones Beach does collect fees to cover expenses. Visitors pay an entry fee of $8 per car, but have the option of buying a $65 unlimited car pass, which is good for a year. Beach umbrellas can be rented for $10, and lounge chairs for another $10. Other fees are charged to stargazers who want beach access at night, and to fishermen who want permits to drive their four-wheelers onto the beach to cast for striped bass.
Meanwhile, Jersey Shore towns offer inconsistent services, access, and fees. It makes more sense to have a state-park approach that takes a more holistic view of the shoreline and government's obligation to protect it. If a town were dissatisfied with the state's maintenance, it could supplement the state's staff with its own public-works employees.
The citizens of New Jersey own the shoreline, which is key to bringing in $38 billion in tourism revenue annually, so the citizens should protect it. But there's a better way of doing that than the current, hodgepodge, each-town-do-its-own-thing system that exists now. Some towns do well, others not well at all.
Those Shore town mayors opposed to ending beach tags do make an important point. Year-round residents shouldn't bear all the cost to safeguard and maintain the beaches when it's mostly the seasonal vacationers who take risks in the water and leave beer cans, cigarette butts, and other trash on the sand.
The problem with the Doherty-Sweeney beach-tag bill is that it doesn't address the overarching question of who should be responsible for protecting and maintaining the beaches. For consistency, it should be the state.
With the horrific damage caused by Superstorm Sandy, and the increased likelihood of another extreme weather event, public officials must rethink how best to protect the Jersey Shore.
Doherty and Sweeney are on to something with their idea that any town that gets state or federal aid to rebuild storm-damaged beaches should stop charging the public for beach access. But beyond that, New Jersey needs to treat its Shore as a single attribute that requires a universal approach to access, protection, and development that doesn't vary from town to town.