National News

A New Jersey Town Actually Adds Beach Parking. And It’s on the Beach.

Posted May 28, 2018 2:45 p.m. EDT

WILDWOOD, N.J. — It is about a third of a mile from the boardwalk, across the sand, to the ocean’s edge, an intimidating journey for anyone lugging young children, ample beach gear or when the hot summer sun sends sand temperatures scalding.

Dealt an abundance of space and sand, officials in Wildwood, New Jersey, have done what many towns up and down the Jersey Shore would consider unfathomable: turning part of its sizable beach space into sandy parking spots, even constructing a tunnel under the boardwalk to help cars reach the beach.

“This area could potentially park, I mean, thousands of cars,” Tom Miceli, supervisor of beach services for the city of Wildwood, said. “This is bigger than a mall parking lot, don’t you think?”

With the Memorial Day Weekend marking the unofficial start of the beach season, it also kicks off the perpetual battle over beach access in New Jersey, where towns along the 127-mile coast regulate parking spaces, meter rates, beach access points and, most contentiously, beach tag prices.

With the Jersey Shore an ever increasingly popular destination, new battles pop up every year. This year will be the first full summer that the town of Deal is charging for daily beach tags at its main public beach. The town of Harvey Cedars is being sued by a handicapped resident, Bettie Greber, who purchased her own motorized beach transport buggy, but who said she had been banned from using it by the town. And the state Senate is considering a bill that would impose statewide oversight of beaches to bring some order to access rules.

But Wildwood, which is near the southern end of the Jersey Shore, is essentially turning the perennial battle on its head.

Officials are using their vast wealth of sandy expanse to welcome any four-wheel-drive vehicles (not to be confused with all-wheel-drive, which will get stuck in the sand) to park on the newly accessible beach for $10 a day or $20 during special events like concerts. Nearby private lots can charge anywhere from $15 to as much as $30 on holiday weekends.

The expansion centers on a new tunnel under the aged pine boardwalk that leads to a compressed slice of sand that will be set off by a rope and a sand berm.

“People are under the perception that when you drive through the tunnel, it’s a free-for-all, and that’s not the case,” Pete Byron, commissioner of the department of revenue and finance in Wildwood who came up with idea for the sandy parking lot, said.

The town believes it could take in about $100,000 in new revenue just from parking, not to mention the surge local businesses could see from more visitors. (On Saturday, the beach was the scene of an altercation involving two Wildwood police officers one of whom was seen on a video punching a woman they were attempting to apprehend.)

Some visitors viewed it as a much-needed alternative to the long journey across the sand. Kayla Cordero, 20, who lives in Philadelphia, said she had been coming to Wildwood all her life and was visiting with her 1-year-old daughter. As they sprinkled pepper on slices at the renowned Sam’s Pizzeria on the boardwalk, Cordero pointed to her umbrella stroller leaning next to the table and said it was not the most optimal beach transportation for her daughter.

“That’s why it’s great to have the parking on the beach,” she said. “Then you’ll only have to make the baby go a little bit.”

But others found the notion of rows of cars lining the sand in front of the water jarring, if not potentially damaging to the surrounding area.

“I don’t think there should be parking on any beach,” said Debbie Hirsch, 64, who was visiting Wildwood from Poughkeepsie, New York, with her husband, Raymond, and their dog. “It risks any wildlife that’s growing over there.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said that the piping plover, a shore bird that is endangered in New Jersey, and the horseshoe crab could be affected by motor vehicles, including any leaking oil that could end up in the water. The state has tried to help establish nesting areas for the plover farther north along the shore.

“I just think it’s weird to be looking out from the boardwalk to the ocean and you see a parking lot,” Tittel said. “I just don’t know that I’d like that experience.” Other towns allow cars to park on the beach — Brigantine, just north of Atlantic City, has opened its beach to cars for years, though drivers must have yearly permits.

But even as access grows in Wildwood, other towns can seem less accommodating. Greber, who bought her house in Harvey Cedars in 1994, suffered a stroke in 2008, leaving her unable to walk to the beach or propel a specially equipped wheelchair up the sand-clogged access ramps. Her husband had a heart attack and is unable to push her.

So first she invested in a motorized wheelchair with beach tires, which cost her $4,000, but it, too, would get stuck in the soft shore sand. After extensive research she upgraded to a Kawasaki Mule, an all-terrain vehicle with a flat bed in the rear, which she paid $10,000 for in 2016 and regularly took to the beach that summer.

After the summer, town officials issued an ordinance banning vehicles with engines over two horsepower, like Greber’s, during the main beach season. Greber was issued a ticket in 2017 and told she could no longer use her beach transport.

“I felt it was targeting me,” Greber said.

While Harvey Cedars offers some transportation for the disabled — a buggy shuttle service operates from midmorning to midafternoon — Greber said she enjoyed seeing the sunrise and visiting the beach with her granddaughter.

“My son-in-law surfs and my granddaughter is learning, and right now I can’t go watch them,” she said.

So she is suing the borough for violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The town argues that Greber does have options. “We believe that there are vehicles that are out there that our ordinance would fit and would be safe,” Jonathan S. Oldham, the mayor of Harvey Cedars, said.

About an hour north in Deal, two small kiosks that look like replicas of a municipal parking meter have been installed next to the stone steps off Monmouth Terrace, the sole evidence that the once-free beach now costs $8 on a weekday, and $10 on weekends.

“I grew up in New Jersey, so going to the Shore, this is sacred,” said Katrina Plotkin, 21, who lives in Northport, New York, and was visiting friends in the area. “We try to do the beach the right way. We go out down the shore at the right bars, and you wake up and you go to the beach, and you want to go to a free beach.”

The town hopes that charging to get on the beach might discourage some drivers and address its failed efforts to curb parking in nearby residential neighborhoods.

“Now that they’re asking for money,” Plotkin said, “I don’t know that we’ll come back.”

But in Wildwood, the combination of a free beach and a more convenient parking lot has some New Jersey residents planning to make it their summer go-to.

“You go to Ocean City, there’s barely any room to find a spot to beach out, but here it’s huge,” Chris Caron, a 28-year-old small business owner from Williamson, said. “If you can park your car on the beach, why not?”