Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jersey Shore

Just try to get on this beach, buster
Seaside Heights: Everybody's welcome

Back in the 1990s, I wrote a weekly column called "Jersey" for the New York Times. In it, I roamed the state for material, and regularly settled on the vexing subject of the New Jersey seashore -- known to all as the Jersey Shore.

Unlike most reporters, from New York or elsewhere, I actually realized that the Jersey Shore started at Cape May to the south and ended 127 miles north at Sandy Hook --  and that the absolutely worst places to get a feel for it, whether in good times or stormy times -- were at those two easy-to-find, easy-to-reach-from-Manhattan towns on the northern stretches of the shore, Asbury Park and Long Branch.

[Obligatory mention of Bruce Springsteen whenever there's a mention of Asbury Park].

A couple of things about those two towns. One, until they became nicely gentrified by young professionals, especially affluent gays, in recent years, those towns were decrepit and largely overlooked by outsiders.

Two, most of the other Jersey Shore towns -- Cape May, Wildwood, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Ocean City, Atlantic City, Long Beach Island's communities, Seaside Heights, etc -- are on barrier islands. Asbury Park and Long branch are on the mainland. The issues most pressing shore issues -- erosion, reckless development, restricted public access to beaches that are expensively, constantly, painstakingly restored with federal and state tax money -- are centered on the barrier islands, and not on the mainland.

And vis a vis public use of the beaches, the actual issue is access. The issue is not the $3 or $5 a beach town might charge per day for using the beach. Some of the towns that charge fees enthusiastically welcome the public to come in and pay them. Others, the exclusive towns that keep the public out by prohibiting parking anywhere in town, officially have "beach fees" -- but they are basically a fiction because no one can actually get to the beach who doesn't live there at least seasonally.

Despite my efforts, the media never got this right, and they still don't, as seen in this well-meaning but basically pointless report on NPR about beach fees and public access.

On the Jersey Shore in summertime, wide-open towns like Cape May, Ocean City, Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant Beach and the like, all impose nominal beach fees to offset local expenses of hiring lifeguards and maintenance. In these funloving towns, which welcome the public, it's easy to find the place to actually pay the daily fee (usually at numerous booths at the boardwalks), and public accommodations, including parking, are readily available. No problemo, as they might say in Seaside Heights.

[Only a few major beach towns, namely Wildwood and Atlantic City, do not impose fees of any kind, incidentally. Access is totally open.]

But most of the rest of the Shore is exclusive, with beach access actually available only to well-heeled residents, who go to great efforts, abetted by their local police departments, to keep out the riff-raff, which is defined as the rest of us who might be looking for a day at the shore and not planning to spend it at the big boardwalk towns.

Just try to find public parking, let alone a place to actually pay a beach fee or buy a beach tag, in Avalon or Harvey Cedars or Deal or a dozen other Jersey Shore towns that make it clear that "Day Tripper" is a dirty word. Just try to walk on their damn beach! You will see what the word exclusive really means. And it just so happens that these towns -- which comprise the bulk of the Jersey Shore oceanfront real estate -- tend to be the ones with the greatest demands for taxpayer-funded beach replenishment and anti-erosion projects because, you see, these are the most ecologically vulnerable areas, where the most inadvisable beachfront development -- read, multi-million-dollar homes built on beaches that are extremely susceptible to erosion -- has occurred in the last four decades.

New Jersey Gov. Chris ("Thar She Blows") Christie now lobbies for many billions in federal aid to restore the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy, the devastation of which he called "unthinkable." Yet it wasn't "unthinkable," it was absolutely predictable and inevitable -- but no one is really pressing Christie and his likes on just exactly what kind of restoration they have in mind.

Lemme guess. Does the term "status quo ante" sound about right? Is it your guess, as it is mine, that Christie's plan is to back the rebuilding of the Jersey Shore just as it was, with all of those splendid mansions on the seaside, revived and protected by taxpayers?

The NPR report correctly seeks out comment from people like Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group. It says:

"Before the storm, he says, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent years building up the beaches by pumping sand onto them. But that shouldn't be a solution to restoring the shore, he says.
'We need to design the beaches to be sustainable, to be open to the public, in a way that everybody can get to them, everywhere, and we need to design them so they're ecologically sensitive and they provide for habitat,' Dillingham says."

Seventy-five percent of the restoration costs for the Jersey shore, the report says, accurately, "is likely to come from federal taxpayers, with the state picking up a significant chunk too." And it adds, again accurately: "Yet much of the beach-restoration work will end up protecting private property. The relatively few beach areas now accessible to the public on the Jersey shore often charge fees of $8, $10 and even $12 a day for access. And some towns are considering hiking those fees to help pay for the renovations."

But that's where we slip off the rails. The issue, as presented by the NPR report, is that politicians in the New Jersey state legislature are hoping to pass a law saying that beach towns that have access fees in place can't accept taxpayer restoration money.

Who would be hurt by that? Why, the big boardwalk towns like Seaside Heights and Ocean City that charge beach fees and at the same time welcome the public, providing parking and rest rooms and other services, including lifeguards.

Who would not care in the least? Why, the "stay-the-hell-away" towns that have fees in place mainly  to maintain the fiction that beach access is available -- when, in fact, there is no practical way for outsiders to access or use  the beach, given parking restrictions and a total lack of public services. So why would they care if they can't charge beach fees to the public at large? In these towns, the beach is for the locals, there is no public parking anywhere in town -- but the bill for restoring that beach and fixing expensive homes that are recklessly built in vulnerable oceanfront locations, well, that bill is presented to taxpayers at large.

(Yes, the virtual gated communities do charge residents for beach passes to residents, but on a seasonal, not daily, basis. That is, residents pay for the whole summer. Officially banned from charging public "beach fees," these towns could just as easily designate these seasonal passes as  membership assessments, and hence make it official that what they're actually running is a kind of beachfront country club reserved for the swells.)  

So "access" is available in the big boardwalk towns, at a nominal fee (except for Wildwood and Atlantic City, where it's free) -- but virtually denied in most of these other towns, even though they maintain the fiction of access. Realistically there is no way for the public to use those beaches in the most exclusive shore towns with the most expensive real estate. On a summer day, you can't park there, and just try to even find a place to pay that beach fee.

So the NPR piece is well-intentioned, and so perhaps (just perhaps) is the move in the Jersey legislature to ban beach fees in towns that accept restoration money. But it misses the real point. A $5 daily beach fee in raucous, wonderful Seaside Heights, teeming with the general public during the summer, that isn't the issue. The smug archipelago of virtual gated communities, hogging taxpayer-maintained beaches that are effectively closed to the general public under all circumstances -- that's the issue on the Jersey Shore.

And you're not going to learn about the real issue, standing on a beach in Long Branch, where they actually let you stand on the beach. Try doing that in, say, the town of Deal.


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