Ocean County's freeholders are standing in opposition to a state Senate bill that, if approved, would permit counties to take over the operation of beaches within its jurisdiction.
A resolution stating that Ocean County would be “actively impacted” by this legislation was unanimously passed at a Freeholders meeting May 1.
“If Ocean County were to take over and maintain the 44 miles of just oceanfront beaches in Ocean County, it would not only be cost prohibitive but would also require taxpayers who don’t use the beaches to pay for them,” Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari said.
The bill (S2601, A3891), sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith and Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, would authorize any county of the fifth or six class — Atlantic, Monmouth, Ocean and Cape May — to assume complete responsibility for the operation and control of the beaches.
If passed, municipalities would have 180 days to adopt an ordinance reserving responsibility and control to the municipality. Following that timeframe, the county could pass a resolution to assume responsibility for beaches in municipalities that did not adopt an ordinance in opposition.
The majority of Ocean County beaches are public and monitored and maintained by local municipalities. Those municipalities charge user fees to cover the cost of maintenance, which includes lifeguards, bathrooms and cleaning. Revenue made from beach badges, does not support the local budget, Vicari said.
“The county would be responsible for the maintenance, upgrades, lifeguards, etc., and it is a policy decision not to assume this responsibility,” he said, adding that Smith should instead worry about the constituents he represents.
Ocean County mayors wish to maintain a home rule as it relates to its beaches, Vicari said. The Freeholders were requested by the Ocean County Mayors Association to support their opposition.
“Whoever is going to take it over would have to take it over lock, stock and barrel for cleaning and lifeguards,” Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher said. “I don’t see that happening.”
Cape May County Freeholders also passed a resolution opposing the bill in April, according to the Cape May County Herald.
The bill also states:
- That the beaches would constitute a public utility of the county. Revenues and expenditures would be required to be reported in detail on the county website.
- The county can impose uniform county-wide beach fees
- Counties that assume control of beaches would be provided with an exception to the 2.5 percent cap on appropriations of the previous year for expenditures relating to the operation of the beaches.
- The county can exercise the power of eminent domain in order to erect dunes to protect lands, property and facilities located near the beaches
“The bill is totally permissive,” Smith said.
If a municipality wanted the county to assume control of its beaches, this bill gives the county the ability to do so, he said.
“It’s totally voluntary,” he said, adding that it simply proposes “another model” of operating beaches.
States such as California utilize a county-run model, he said.
In a time when many municipalities are seeking shared service agreements to cut costs, Smith thought this would be another way to do so.
“Its so one government does the work rather than 25 municipalities,” he said.
Also, there has been a growing criticism of increasingly high beach fees, he said. This bill gives the county the opportunity to impose a flat beach fee.
“I’m not sure what their argument is. It’s just an alternative. If I was a taxpayer, I would ask why (the opposition), but that’s not for me to judge,” Smith said.
The bill also allows for the county to use eminent domain to rebuild its dunes, which the county’s opposing resolution did not mention.
Many Ocean County municipalities are seeking to obtain easements to replenish the beaches. Approximately 85 percent of people have signed easements without compensation, Vicari said.
Kelaher has begun to call out Toms River property owners who have not cooperated. There was a May 1 deadline for all easements to be signed for a substantial dune replenishment project.
Another bill (S2599), which is supported by the Ocean County Mayors Association, requires the consideration of increased property value due to dune construction or beach replenishment in determining compensation provided for condemned beachfront property.
According to the bill’s statement, it would supplement the Eminent Domain Act of 1971, which provides government entities with the right to acquire private land for public use with just compensation.
This bill states that the “just compensation for beachfront property condemned for the purpose of acquiring an easement for dune construction or beach replenishment must include consideration of the increase in value to the entire property due to the added safety and property protection provided by the dune or beach, as well as any diminution in value to the property attributable to the condemnation.”
“We’re just asking them to consider a different way to do things,” Smith said. “We’re hoping to get the value of easements lower. Dune easements will never happen again in New Jersey otherwise.“
And Smith's bill (S2601) allows for eminent domain should a property owner refuse to sign an easement.
Vicari questioned where the money for "just compensation" would come from, and how it would be justified that some residents could be paid for the land while others aren't.
“We support beach replenishment and dunes in Ocean County and the local towns are in the process of getting easements signed,” Vicari said. “We support the Governor’s stand that easements should be in place and encourage the Governor to take the appropriate steps to meet this goal.”
The Senate Environment and Energy Committee advanced S2601 and six other bills that were said to help the state recover from the storm, according to NJ.com.
"The overwhelming, widespread damage of Superstorm Sandy has raised a bevy of significant concerns in regard to land use, home construction, flooding hazards and beach protection for the people of New Jersey,” Spencer said in a news release following a joint legislative hearing on Sandy rebuilding concerns in March.
The hearing discussed those seven bills that would “ensure beach and shore protection.”
"We do recognize that there are several projects presently underway. Before we continue to invest our money we must be sure the actions we are taking going forward will surely protect the people of New Jersey long term,” she said in the release.
Spencer did not return calls for comment.