Op-Ed: State Legislature Opts for ‘Beachgate’ Rather Than Coming Beach Crisis

Anthony Rottino | August 4, 2017 | Opinion
Enacting a law to keep governor off the beach in case of another government shutdown makes for good PR, but ignores the real problem with the Jersey Shore

Anthony Rottino
The state Assembly whipped out its wooden ruler on July 31 and slapped the knuckles of Gov. Chris Christie for having the audacity to sit on a state-owned beach during a government shutdown of public parks during the July 4 weekend. If bill A-5132 garners Senate approval, no future governor or his family will be able to dig their toes in the sand controlled by the state.

The Assembly’s action makes for good public relations’ headlines, but ignores a much larger issue that could impact miles of state beaches and about which the Legislature has done nothing except — pardon the pun — bury its head in the sand.

It’s entirely possible that within a few years the state Legislature will find itself embroiled in another budget battle and a government shutdown will ensue in July. But this time the shutdown will not just include Island Beach State Park, but miles of beach under the control of state government. Vacationers and day-trippers headed for fun in the sun could be met by “Beach Closed” signs preventing them from getting anywhere near the ocean.

Preposterous? No! If the Legislature had been paying attention to the governor’s dune-building plan and its possible ramifications for the Jersey Shore’s future, the lawmakers would have been alerted to a potential crisis barreling down on the state like an autumn nor’easter.

In the wake of the superstorm

Following Superstorm Sandy, Christie authorized the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin taking private property along the state’s oceanfront. DEP Commissioner Bob Martin dutifully carried out the governor’s orders and grabbed perpetual easements on beachfront property from nearly 4,000 naive property owners — representing the biggest government land grab in the state since the Highlands Act land-use restrictions took effect more than a decade ago.

Essentially, the state — not the municipalities and homeowners — now controls Jersey’s beaches. State control was Christie’s prerequisite to his brazen promise that he would hold back the ocean for the next half century and protect the Jersey Shore. Ever long on rhetoric, the governor has been short on details — and the Legislature hasn’t been asking very many questions.

Exactly how will the state fulfill Christie’s guarantees and how will the DEP operate beaches that the state essentially now owns? Christie doesn’t have to worry about those details because his promises will fall on future administrations and Legislatures to fulfill, but the governor has left no playbook for them to follow. Neither Democrat Phil Murphy nor Republican Kim Guadagno have said much about the Christie dune plan or bothered to examine its fiscal impact on the state — but one of them and veteran lawmakers will get stuck dealing with it.

Here is what we do know. The state is now the de facto owner of miles of oceanfront acquired through easements that it paid almost nothing for, making the state the biggest landowner at the shore. The state now has an obligation to protect homeowners and manage the beaches, which could include hiring lifeguards and managing bathrooms and changing facilities. In effect, Christie has created a linear state park from Point Pleasant south to Cape May that Trenton will manage.

The DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia office have kicked off a beach replenishment plan this year that promises wider beaches and massive sand dunes to hold back the ocean. The DEP also promises that there will be more beach access via increased parking (where?) and specially-built walkovers that will permit bathers to clamber over the huge dunes to get to the beach on the other side.

A huge price tag

All of this will cost massive amounts of money, which the state does not have. The initial dune plan is being financed jointly by the state and federal governments at a cost of about $11 million a mile. Once that money is exhausted, there is no reasonable expectation that when the dunes need to be rebuilt in three years that the state will get any federal money.

But now that the state has taken responsibility for the beachfront, it will have to finance the replenishment or be faced with legal liability issues. Where will that money come from? The municipalities through higher taxes? Or immensely higher beach access fees? Both? Neither? The Legislature that was quick to pounce on Christie for playing in the sand, has been slow to examine the governor’s promise that could cost a billion dollars.

Let’s fast forward to 2020 or 2021. The Legislature is in another budget battle. More money is needed for education, drug addiction, transportation — and, oh yes, dumping sand on the beach and rebuilding the dunes. Wind and water erosion have whittled the dunes down to ineffective lumps of sand and the ocean has reclaimed most of the widened beaches, which are now not very safe or inviting.

If the new governor reasons that spending more on education and roads is a higher priority than millions for dune building, Trenton will again be mired in financial gridlock as the budget deadline passes. Another government shutdown ensues and state-run facilities are closed — including the miles of beachfront now controlled by the state. There are no lifeguards on duty and bathrooms are padlocked. So no one goes to the beach to celebrate Independence Day.

This scenario is the likely legacy of government overreach inspired by a governor whose bold promises were made without a fiscal reality check by anyone in state government — and that includes the legislators who went for the easy headline rather than deal with the difficult fix.