By Fred Miller
“Mayor Says City May Have To Charge for Beach Use; To Finance Protection Cost” was the headline on the front page of the February 24, 1937 Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger. The article began, “The time may come when Ocean City will be obliged to charge visitors for the privilege of using the beach, in order to raise sufficient revenue to protect them.” The statement was credited to Mayor Joseph G. Champion.
The time came thirty-nine years later: “Beach fees are in effect” was the headline on the front page of the June 29, 1976, Sentinel-Ledger. According to the article, “Things went smoothly last weekend as the City began enforcing the beach fee ordinance that requires all bathers over the age of 12 to display a tag in order to use the beach.”
The first “tag required day” was preceded by years of debate. In 1971, Stone Harbor became the first town in South Jersey to require beach tags, but by 1976 Ventnor, Margate, Longport, Sea Isle City and Avalon all required them.
A Beach Fee Study Commission was appointed and after months of discussion they recommended the institution of beach fees for the summer of 1976.
Mayor B. Thomas Waldman and City Commissioners Luther L. Wallace and Chester J. Wimberg asked the 8,040 registered voters to decide the issue on March 16, 1976. Voters were not asked specifically to approve or disapprove beach fees, but whether to amend a 1967 ordinance making all beaches free for recreational use.
A “YES” vote to delete the word “free” from the ordinance would be a vote for beach fees; a “NO” vote would be construed as a vote against beach fees.
Despite heavy rains and a threat of flooding, 40% of the registered voters went to the polls in the special election. A total of 2,297 voters said yes to beach fees, while 854 voted no.
An editorial in the March 19, 1976, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin supported the vote. “Beach fees, so long as they remain moderate, as those proposed by Ocean City would be, can be justified. No beach is ‘free”; someone has to pay for its maintenance, lifeguards and equipment, etc.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court has stipulated that beach fees must be the same for residents and nonresidents. This is a powerful incentive for keeping such fees reasonable.”
The first beach tags went on sale April 29, 1976 under the direction of Clifford Phifer, a retired Army colonel. The red, white and blue (it was America’s bicentennial year) seasonal tag cost $3.00 until May 31; thereafter, the seasonal tag cost $5.00. Weekly tags, good from Saturday to Saturday, cost $1.50.
A total of $760,000 was collected during the summer of 1976, $160,000 more than had been anticipated. Director Phifer said, “I think these figures are important in that they demonstrated the financial success of the program and how well the public accepted it.”
A year later, an editorial in the September 16, 1977 Sentinel-Ledger justified the beach fee program. Editor Vince Michelette wrote, “Lifeguard salaries, beach maintenance and beach erosion control are paid for out of beach fee money, and that is a large burden off the shoulders of the average taxpayer.”
The beach taggers collected a record four million dollars in 2015.