In Another Time > Beach fee proposal is nothing new

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Arguments about the pros and cons of beach fees in Wildwood have been as much a part of its history as parking meters, the boardwalk and roller coasters. Its residents and those who come here and then go home have been talking about whether beach fees are to be or not to be for almost half a century, since Ocean City became the first in the county to make it happen in 1976, the year the United States celebrated its 200th anniversary.

They’re at it again in Wildwood these days, at least in the talking stage, as the financial crunch is squeezing the budget and ultimately the taxpayers. The big question is: will it work here in Wildwood with or without its neighbors of North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest?

The last time they revived the subject in Wildwood was in February of 1980, when the outspoken Commissioner Wilbur Ostrander spoke out in favor of the fees. He admitted there might be legal problems involving acquisition of privately owned beach front property at the northern section of the city, but he was optimistic.

“I’m hopeful that the problems can be resolved so that we can have beach fees like so many other resorts do,” said the commissioner in a quote in the Press of Atlantic City. “I think it is outrageous for the taxpayers of Wildwood to pay the $400,000 it costs to maintain the beaches.”

Ostrander got some support from his governing colleagues, Mayor Guy Muziani and Commissioner Richard Nordaby. While they said it couldn’t happen until 1981 because of the potential legal problems, they would lend their support to the idea when those problems were straightened out. Muziani believed that voters would support a beach fee if the facts were properly presented to them. All concurred that the fees are needed as another source of revenue to ensure that the taxpayers aren’t the only people who pay to maintain the beaches.

The the voters of Wildwood apparently did not agree. In a non-binding referendum they turned down the beach fee idea.

Obviously, since the spacious beaches are still free, the proposal died in its crib. Occasionally, however, the subject has come up here, but some have considered beach fees obscene words, although of late some of the words seem to have been sanitized in a purification program of necessity.

Not all of the original opposition came from the locals, however. Some from the north of New Jersey protested that the beach and the ocean were God’s work and should not be commercialized. Others complained that they don’t charge for people to visit their mountains and lakes, so why should they be assessed for spending time at the south’s ocean and beaches? It wasn’t the magnitude of the Civil War, but there were heated exchanges between the north and the south of New Jersey.

In Cape May where beach fees officially arrived in 1977 as the second community in the county to do so, voters approved the proposal in a non-binding referendum after rejecting it a few years earlier, according to former Cape May Mayor Arthur “Mickey” Blomkvest, who presided at the time.

The issue was not completely devoid of controversy, however. An angry man filed a $300,000 civil rights suit against the city in 1980, alleging that the municipal beach tag laws were unconstitutional. He went so far as to cite the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and 10th amendments of the constitution as reasons for his action.

The objector had a personal interest. .Cape May police cited him in June of 1978 for refusing to wear a beach tag on the 400 foot beach in front of the historic Congress Hall Hotel then owned by the Christian Beacon Press of the late Rev. Carl McIntire who had claimed he had “liberated” the beach when he had led his followers and reporters on something of a freedom march there. The charge against the objector was subsequently dismissed, but he went on with his court action anyway, which apparently did not succeed given the number of beach tag communities in the county today.

One of the big obstacles, it was thought early on, was the matter of private beaches, but in Ocean City, which in its first year of 1976 collected $760,000 in beach fees, its solicitor saw it differently.

“You can think of a property as a bundle of sticks, each representing a right,” attorney Michael Connor was quoted in The Press. “You can own certain sticks in the bundle, but not the whole bundle. The community retains control over some of the sticks.

“You can charge beach fees on the land that you own and also on the land which you have easements on. You can get an easement by use of the land as well as through the actual lease.”

Connor said a legal subcommittee of an appointed study committee ruled before the beach fee issue was resolved that two state statues gave the community the right to impose a “reasonable fee” for use of the beach.

The lawyer also used his comments as a point of reference for other communities considering beach tag fees, especially Cape May.

“Everyone realizes it costs money to maintain a beach, and the question is who should pay for it?” he said. “There are two ways to raise the money, either through the general tax base or by some kind of a license fee, and it was felt in fairness that you should pay as you go. This unquestionably also has the added benefit of taxing non-residents. This is similar to the sales tax.”

While the experiences of its beach fee predecessors may be helpful advice for Wildwood, all is not apples and apples in matching the present with the past. Some oranges are in their midst to portray mixed fruit.

For one thing, Wildwood has spacious beaches which will require many personnel to staff them. In Avalon in 1986, beach tags raised $306,000 but $403,000 was spent for beach inspectors, lifeguards and cleaning the beach. Would the cost defeat the purpose in Wildwood or would any loss be better than the amount now spent on freebie beaches? How many beach inspectors would North Wildwood need, for instance, to cover an area from 26th Avenue to the Anglesea section of what is known as part of Five Mile Beach? And how will it all work out if Wildwood Crest, also with spacious beaches, and North Wildwood join the venture, or do not? Would the freebies go to the still-free Crest and North Wildwood instead of to the new pay-as-you-come Wildwood beach?

These are among the many questions that must be answered and probably will. In the years to come, new history will be written in Wildwood about beach fees, just as it was in the 1970s when Ocean City and Cape May started it all in this county. It promises to be an interesting future for history to record.

 

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the reference department of the Cape May County Library.)


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