Wildwood’s oceanfront extends from 26th Avenue to Cresse Avenue, but any beach fees, if approved by voters March 5, will likely not apply to all of the beach between the two borders.
The ordinance that would allow for a beach tag program specifically notes that state law allows “that municipalities bordering on the Atlantic Ocean may pass on some, or all, of that financial burden to persons who use and enjoy the public beach and associated recreational and bathing facilities by charging a fee to offset those costs.”
But not all of Wildwood’s beach is public.
City Tax Assessor Jason Hesley said Tuesday that the northern part of the beach from 26th Avenue to Cedar Avenue, an eight-block section known as the First Ward beach, is largely privately owned.
A city list of the owners in the First Ward shows 46 Boardwalk properties, with the city listed as owner of only nine of those parcels.
Those private owners hold title to the beach and pay taxes on the beach, though the land value is considerably less than upland portions, Hesley said.
“The land is valued at 10 percent of regular land values,” Hesley said, explaining that it is similar to wetlands in that the land is either not buildable or requires extensive permitting before any development could take place.
When asked about the private beaches during a special City Commission meeting Friday, City Solicitor Dorothy Garrabrant said that the city could not make a private owner pay beach fees.
The logistical implications of a mix of public and private beaches have yet to be worked out, and the effect that could have on any beach fee program won’t be known until it is implemented.
Middle Township resident Peter Golamis is among those who own part of the city’s beach.
His grandfather, Chris P. Golamis, purchased Boardwalk property in 1932, and the sale included a section of the beach across from 3312 Boardwalk.
Peter Golamis leases the property to another business and would prefer that the beach remain free. “I think the free beach is what attracts families,” he said.
Wildwood Crest Borough Clerk/Administrator Kevin Yecco said the beaches in his community, which he said has no interest in pursuing beach fees at this time, are all publicly owned.
The borough owns all of its beaches following a movement in the 1980s to acquire the land, Yecco said.
North Wildwood officials have also said the town, which also owns all of its beach, is not pursuing beach fees.
In addition, North Wildwood Mayor Bill Henfey said he already has had talks with the city’s police chief, beach patrol chief and public works director about how the community will cope if it sees an influx of visitors trying to avoid the fees.
“We’re definitely concerned about that,” Henfey said, adding those departments may need some additional staff if the town sees a substantial number of additional beachgoers.
Meanwhile, information packets detailing the city’s beach fee referendum question and the ordinance it would create are now available at City Hall.
The question reads: “Should the ordinance proposed, which shifts funding for beach maintenance from a tax (paid by property owners) to a user fee (paid by beach-goers), be adopted?”
The last vote on the issue here was in 1981, and since word spread that a new vote was on the city’s agenda, opponents and supporters have turned their attention to March 5, the day voters go to the polls.
“We have historically been opposed to beach fees,” said Steve Tecco, a Wildwood Crest motel owner and president of the Greater Wildwood Hotel Motel Association.
“It will be our goal to inform people of the entire picture,” Tecco said of the group’s plan to oppose the referendum. “It’s not an incentive that will draw people to our island.”
Wildwood officials have long talked of beach fees and the costs of maintaining an ever-expanding beachfront. City Commissioner Pete Byron said beach costs, including operating the Beach Patrol and maintaining the beach, come to $1.5 million. The city receives $240,000 from the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority to offset those costs, but that money will no longer be given to the city if beach tags are implemented. The city also receives additional money, about $100,000, from the authority for Boardwalk police officers.
Byron said reaction to beach-fee referendum has been mixed, with many residents supporting it.
“The phones haven’t been ringing off the hook,” he said. “I’m going to take that as a positive.”
He said residents from neighboring towns have also offered support.
“I think people feel it’s time.” Byron said.
The communities in the Wildwoods are among the few in Cape May County that do not charge for the use of their beaches.
Cape May, for instance, has operated a beach tag program since 1977, but Mayor Ed Mahaney said the program didn’t break even until 2000.
Cape May City Manager Bruce MacLeod said the program’s costs include $116,000 in operating expenses for things such as rental of a city property to run the program, $35,000 to purchase the tags and administrative costs and equipment.
Salaries, the other significant expense for the Cape May beach tag program, were $275,000 last year, which supports 65 to 75 seasonal employees.
MacLeod said that on any given day, 35 beach tag employees are working to cover all 27 beach access points.
The city previously used roving beach tag checkers, but that was found to be less efficient, MacLeod said.
Cape May sold about 200,000 beach tags in 2012, including daily, three-day, weekly, pre-season and in-season tags.
Proceeds for the year for the city’s beach utility reached $2 million, and that money supports beach maintenance, lifeguards and other beach expenses, which totaled $1.9 million in 2012, MacLeod said.
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