Editorial >> Beach tags are reasonable, even if you don’t like them

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Beach tags are reasonable, even if you don’t like them Beach tags are reasonable, even if you don’t like them

It should be illegal for beach towns to gouge visitors with beach fees in order to pad their budgets and prop up their local salaries. As Senate President Stephen Sweeney told our reporter recently, beach towns should find a way to cut costs, rather than look to beach fees to fund inefficient government.

Oh, wait, that already is illegal.

New Jersey courts have found that beach tag sales are legal, but should only cover the cost of running the beach, including lifeguards, cleaning and other expenses. A 1989 lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Public Advocate against the borough of Belmar in Monmouth County found that the borough was discriminating against non residents, using beach tag sales to supplement its budget. The ruling meant that the town could only use the tag sales for costs directly connected to the beach.

The case set precedent for the state. It came up in a lawsuit in Cape May, which resulted in Cape May establishing a beach utility fund, separating its beach operations from the rest of the budget, to be funded entirely by beach fees.

Other local towns include the funding from tag sales in with other revenue, but are supposed to keep track of costs compared to the income from tags.

Well, then, these rich shore town homeowners shouldn’t get free beach tags. They should have to buy them like the rest of us.

Wait, they already do that, too.

New Jersey courts have found that it is discriminatory for towns to offer any deal on beach tags for locals that is not available to the general public. A 1972 case found that Avon broke the law in charging non residents twice as much for beach tags. In Deal, also in Monmouth County, in 1978 another court found that a beach club open only to residents also broke the law.

In an interview last week, Sweeney said, “You don’t have to pay to breathe. God gave us the beach. You shouldn’t have to pay to use the beach.”

He’s half right. Beaches are for everyone. Access to the beach is a right, and an ancient one at that. You don’t hear about it as much as free speech and the right to worship as you please, but in New Jersey it’s a right that goes back to English common law, and has been consistently supported by the courts and legislature. Everyone has a right to access to the water, and to go one step further, the area of the beach that is covered at high tide is owned by every person in the state.

But if you want to swim where there are lifeguards, and you really should, someone has to pay those salaries. If you want restrooms, and someone cleaning up the beach, and maybe somewhere to rinse your feet before heading home, well, someone pays for that, too.

Look, nobody likes buying beach tags. Locals grumble, visitors grumble, we all have pretended to be asleep when the beach tag checkers walk by. But there are plenty of instances in which federal and state money has gone to sustaining infrastructure and fees still apply. Toll roads and bridges are a good example of federal money building infrastructure, but the maintenance being paid by those that use it.

Some shore towns have tried to use fees to keep their beaches exclusive. In those cases, the state has rightly said, “No, we helped pay for this beach, so everyone gets to enjoy it.”

But Cape May County towns seem to go out of their way to welcome visitors each summer, with parking lots and restrooms, lifeguards and other amenities.

Besides, if paying for beach tags seems that onerous, try Strathmere or the Wildwoods, which offer lifeguard protected beaches and no tags.

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