Summer is here and the season wouldn’t be complete without loud and strident calls to make New Jersey’s beaches “free.” First, let’s be clear in our definitions. “Free” is not the same as, “managed by a larger, less visible entity.” In this instance, the State of New Jersey.

Most beaches in New Jersey are managed by municipalities. These municipalities charge fees for beach badges and (often) for parking. The complaint is that these fees are too high. God made the beaches, so they should be free, the logic goes.

If beaches were only sand and salt water, I would agree. But does the average beach-goer expect? Parking; access amenities like boardwalks, stairs and ramps; clean sand and water; clean and functional restrooms; lifeguards; first aid, and maybe a place to get a burger, a slice of pizza or a tube of Coppertone.

Despite some claims, parking lots and boardwalks do not magically spring from the sea like Venus on a Half Shell. The sand is clean because it is actually cleaned every day with mechanical sand sifters and sand rakes pulled by heavy equipment, operated by people who get paid. The people who clean and maintain the restrooms get paid too. There is some cost savings, though: the pay scale for lifeguards is low because their fringe benefits are so high. Off the books, as it were.

Let’s say the State takes over the operation of the beaches, and, as a result, the expenses are paid out of the State Treasury. So, which department is going to manage the small army of seasonal maintenance workers and lifeguards?  How will the lifeguards be deployed? Evenly spaced every quarter mile or assigned to designated bathing areas only? What about complaints and problems? Will there be a central call center to report a clogged toilet or a recently-exploded whale carcass?

And how do people generally treat things that are “free?” I think we all know the answer: with brotherly love and as faithful stewards of the environment. Just ask any Section 8 apartment owner.

No doubt the current system is imperfect. But I would argue that it has two great virtues: fairness and variety.

When I realized that smell was my flesh burning, I avoided sitting in the sun for long periods of time. So I don’t go to the beach very often. But when I don’t go I don’t pay a fee. Seems fair to me.

Beach fees vary widely, which creates a variety of beach experiences. If my frat buddies and I want to enjoy a day on the strand, we might choose a beach with a $3 fee and some great amenities like arcades, tattoo parlors and establishments that offer every flavor of Jello shot.

But if I want to treat my future in-laws to a day at the beach, I might be willing to cough up $15 per person for a pristine, uncrowded beach and maybe a game of Marco Polo in the surf. Choice is good.

Is there a better way? Let’s talk about it.

– Bob Gagliano

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