If N.J. bans beach tags, you’ll still pay: the Florida comparison

    After N.J. Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney proposed banning shore towns from charging for beach tags if they want local and federal Sandy recovery dollars, a question came up that’s usually kicked around once a summer: why does N.J. charge for beach access?

    Every beach-front state in the U.S. charges for beach access. N.J. is different in that it does so with a physical tag.

    So let’s look at how one of those states pays for its beaches: Florida.

    Here are seven ways I paid for beach access on my vacation to Key West. If N.J. bans beach tag sales, we’re still going to pay for the beaches. Here are some ways we might do so.

     

    1. Beach Fee.

    I paid $2.50 to get onto Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. If I left and wanted to come back, I had to show the guard my receipt. That’s not much different than a beach tag, except flimsier.

    The fee charged depends on how you’re coming to the beach. It’s $6.50 per car (two to eight people), $4.50 if you’re driving yourself or are on a motorcycle; and $2.50 if you’re on a bike or walking.

    You can buy an Annual Individual Entrance Pass that’s valid for Florida’s 33 state parks. That’s $60 a year for an individual and $120 for a family, but you STILL must pay a $2.50 fee to get into this beach.

    In comparison, an annual beach tag in $25 is Ocean City. Jersey Shore towns also give you a weekly pass option. Doesn’t that look like a steal?

     

    2. Parking.

    Many Florida beach entrances are constructed so that the only way you can get to the beach is via car and the only parking option is in a lot or metered spot. At Ft. Zachary, it’s $6.50 a car per visit (unless you have that annual pass, then it’s $2.50 a visit)

    At the Jersey Shore, you have free parking options. You can pay to park in a lot or feed a meter to be right next to the busiest beach in town, but if you’re willing to walk a few blocks, or move to a beach that isn’t in the heart of town.

    Some towns, like Avalon and Ocean Grove, offer free parking by the beach – the whole beach.

    There is one Jersey beach town that has a Florida-style set up: Atlantic City, which has free beaches. There are some free or metered spots, but most beach-front car spaces are in casino parking garages, and their rates are adjusted per season. In the height of summer, expect to pay at least $20 a day.

     

    3. Taxes

    In N.J., you will pay seven percent New Jersey Sales tax, five percent tourism/occupancy tax, and an additional county tax if you are renting a hotel or motel room. That county tax is two percent in Cape May County.

    However, if you are renting a house or a condo in N.J., you pay zero taxes (which is a giant tax loophole that could be closed to raise revenue, as I’ve reported before).

    On my hotel room in Key West, I was charged a six percent Florida sales tax, a four percent tourism development tax and a one percent tourist impact tax for a total of 11 percent.

    But that’s not the whole the tax story. I paid more in sales tax in Florida because the sales tax, which was 6 percent plus a 1 percent county surcharge in Key West, is applied to more items. Unprepared food, clothing, medicines and and household paper products are exempt in N.J. but not Florida. So my souvineer t-shirts, Benedryl and tissues carried that extra charge.

    Towns with free beaches in N.J. have extra taxes. Atlantic City, for example, has a luxury tax that applies to booze, rolling chairs, fortune tellers, amusements, beach cabanas, bike rentals and more.

    The Wildwoods – also with free beaches – has a Tourism Development Fee that applies to coin operated machines, commercial linen services, apartments, rooming houses and house rentals (but not to hotels and motels because they already charge a 14 percent tax).

    But even their town officials have said it’s not enough, and on Friday, Wildwood commissioners will meet to talk about having a referendum on charging for beach tags.

     

    4. Beach bars.

    Both beaches visited on our trip had bars right on the sand, and those bars help maintain their respective beaches, whether it’s through revenues generated therein, or by them taking care of garbage and cleanup because a tidy beach is going to be a bigger draw for the bar.

    Given the fervor over BYOB in Ocean City, and the long disputes over bars on the boardwalks in Pt. Pleasant, Seaside and Wildwood, putting bars on the beach to make up for lost beach tag revenue is not going to be an easy sell in N.J.

    5. No lifeguards.

    The beaches I visited in Key West weren’t guarded. Same at all the other Florida beaches I’ve been to. This isn’t such a big deal on gulf-front beaches, which are typically more suited for snorkeling than wave riding.

    But that’s not the case in N.J., where some towns could disband their lifeguard squads because they won’t be able to afford them should this law pass.

    We’re not Hawaii, but we have a rip current problem here, and our lifeguards are crucial. They saved dozens of people last year, and most fatalities were at unguarded beaches, or after the lifeguards went home.

    Nixing lifeguards will cut costs, but it will also mean more ocean deaths next year. Do you want to go to a beach where people died because a town cut the lifeguards? I don’t.

     

    6. Chair rental fees.You want to sit on the beach? Pay up. We paid $10 per person per chair at Ft. Zachary.

    We have these services at the N.J. shore, but they’re few and far between because most people bring their own chairs, or the houses they rent provide chairs.

    This isn’t the case in most of Florida, which means beach chair rentals are a big money maker. Based on the number of people on the beach the day I visited Ft. Zachary, I’d guess beach chair rentals brought in at least $400 in one day, during one of the slowest weeks of the year in Key West.

    But this is not a viable revenue stream for N.J. beaches.

     

    7. Resort fees.

    These are fees added on per day to your hotel room that help beachfront hotels maintain the beaches in front of their properties, though I think it’s a dubious practice, and you often don’t know about the fee until you check in. Our Key West hotel didn’t have a beach but still charged us $15 a day. Every morning, my boyfriend asked me if I enjoyed my $15 coffee (I did not).

     

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