It’s cost U.S. taxpayers $55 million and counting to restore Seaside Heights, a 0.3-square-mile New Jersey shore town, after the state’s most destructive natural disaster. Soon a slice of its public beach will be gone forever, buried beneath a private amusement pier.

The construction project, the borough says, is key to maintaining the lucrative tourism vibe captured on “Jersey Shore,” MTV’s study of frisky young singles and their hot tub. Though new thrill rides will draw crowds, a boon to a town still recovering from Hurricane Sandy and a massive fire, it’s more development in the path of inevitable Atlantic Ocean storms.

“How many more businesses do you need?” Matt DeRosa, a 33-year-old emergency dispatcher vacationing from Westchester, New York, said on Aug. 25 as he sat on a boardwalk bench. “In the off season, it’s not even going to be used.”

Visitors to New Jersey’s 127-mile (204-kilometer) shoreline pay as much as $10 to step on the sand, a practice unheard of in other East Coast vacation spots. Even those who’ve never set foot in New Jersey have a stake in its oceanfront, with taxpayers shouldering $9 billion so far in Sandy recovery aid, plus more than $1 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to replenish beach sand washed away over three decades.

Legal Challenge

“The public’s making investments that benefit the state,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocate that has filed a legal challenge to Seaside Heights’ transfer of one of its 16 oceanfront blocks to the owner of Casino Pier. “We have one little town making decisions that the entire public has invested in.”

Throughout the U.S., beach disputes can drag through courts for years, pitting rights of private property owners against the public’s, whose access to navigable waters is rooted in ancient English common law.

In California, Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder Vinod Khosla has been fighting a lawsuit filed by advocates for Martins Beach, about 35 miles south of San Francisco, over 53 acres he bought in 2008 and closed to surfers and other visitors. In New Hampshire, with just 13 miles of oceanfront, the state’s highest court in May ruled that a couple couldn’t block residents of 100 neighboring houses from crossing their backyard to reach the beach.

Sandy Toes

In New Jersey, access to sand and surf, the core of the state’s $42.1 billion tourism industry, is increasingly under threat. Some towns ban oceanside smoking and eating, and debate ever-tougher parking ordinances that favor residents over day-trippers. Long Beach Island, where water-view homes fetch millions of dollars, is notorious for unauthorized no-trespassing signs falsely warning visitors from public beach entrances.