It's easy to paint Sea Bright's private beach clubs as villains in the arguments for greater public access to sand and surf. The clubs operate under a membership revenue setup — members pay a sizable fee before each season to have access to the beach, along with amenities like lockers, a pool, lifeguards, snack bar, bathrooms and parking.
What gets lost at times in the argument is the fact that the beach club owners have invested in those facilities, often substantially, and bear the risk when a storm or other damage-causing calamity occurs.
Therein lies the rub with the $91 million sand replenishment project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Wider shorelines offer increased opportunity for all the businesses in Sea Bright and beyond that depend on the tourists drawn to the beaches — from the pizza parlor to the upscale restaurant.
The beach clubs have been at odds with the state about whether they needed to offer more public access after the replenishment project. All but one, Sea Bright Beach Club, eventually settled with the state. Late last month, Sea Bright Beach Club lost at the appellate level, with the three judges ruling the private club had received a direct benefit that "is almost incalculable" because of the publicly financed sand replenishment project.
Here's what is also incalculable: when a storm hits, it not only sucks away much of that sand — about half the beach from Irene and other recent storms — but also rips apart awnings, upends walkways, and damages pools and other property, all items in which the owners have invested over the years.
The public access argument is one of misguided focus. At the end of the day, what's lacking in Sea Bright during the summer is parking. People can come to the public access points added over the years, but often only if they walk or ride a bike there.
It's a shame the clubs are being cast as villains for offering a secluded haven away from the "Jersey Shore" antics of other Garden State beaches. We're guessing the clubs will have their own T-shirt shops open in time for next season.