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Crowded beaches - are user fees, visitor limits needed?

Except for a small booth at the southern edge of this world-famous beach, the scene is typical of a summer afternoon: countless sunbathers bronzing on towels or lounge chairs, swimmers and waders frolicking in the surf; vendors selling hotdogs.

And cars. Known as the beach you can drive on, the normally wide swath of hard-packed sand has been narrowed by the rising tide. It is beginning to look like a sunbathers' convention in a parking lot.

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But as the drivers slowly make their way between two parallel rows of people and parked vehicles, they are stopped at the booth - a toll booth. About half the once-open, 23-mile stretch of beach here is no longer free, as Daytona Beach Shores, earlier this month, began to charge $1 to $2 to drive or park on its beach.

It is only the latest indication of issues being forced to the surface by the increasing popularity of the nation's beaches.

Here, as in many other cities, the issue is who should pay for beach upkeep. Elsewhere along the nation's shores, especially in ecologically fragile areas, the issue is whether vehicles should be allowed on the beaches at all. And lurking ahead is an issue that could affect even more people: likely limits on the number of people allowed into some of the most popular beaches - those designated as national seashore areas.

As many Americans turn to beaches for recreation cheaper than other kinds of outings or vacations, many of the nation's beaches, especially those close to urban areas, have been drawing larger and larger crowds.

The National Park Service, which controls 10 national seashore areas, had attendance increases of 8- to 32-percent over 1980 at seven areas last year, according to the latest figures available.

Along California's southern coast, from San Diego to Santa Barbara, the number of beach visitors was estimated at about 100 million last year, said Max Bowman, a city official in Huntington Beach. Attendance at his city's beach is down from last year, but only because unusually hot temperatures last summer drew heavy crowds, he says.

While some cities are turning to various fees for beach upkeep, others have had them for years. Still other cities avoid them, fearing to harm the ''golden goose'' the beach represents in terms of tourist dollars for the area, as one official puts it.

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Cities like Virginia Beach, Va., welcome all the beach visitors they can attract - and seek more. But a spokesman for the National Park Service says the day is ''inevitable'' when limits will have to be put on the number of visitors to seashores and inland national parks.

A legal battle is already under way to seek one kind of a limit - on four-wheel-drive vehicles at Cape Cod's popular national seashore.

A tire track ''can last a number of years . . . decades in a salt marsh area, '' says Natick, Mass., attorney Douglas Foy, executive director of the Conservation Law Foundation, which is suing the National Park Service to win a vehicle ban.

A battle over a similar issue on Assateague Island (off the Maryland-Virginia coast) was settled recently when the Department of the Interior decided not to push for expansion of the area now open to four-wheel drive vehicles. Strong citizen opposition and threat of legal suits played a part in the decision, says Judy Johnson of Baltimore, who led the citizen protest.

The island, already about half open to vehicles, is one of the world's most important migratory stopover points for shore birds and the peregrine falcon, she says. Additional vehicle operations could have disturbed their resting area, she says.

National Park Service spokesman Duncan Morrow says that in most national seashores where vehicles are allowed, they are limited in number and in areas in which they can be driven. Most of the drivers respect the rules; some don't, causing ecological damage, he says.

As to determining when a national seashore or park has reached the maximum number of people it can handle, the Department of the Interior still lacks sound scientific data for making such a decision, says Morrow.

Who pays for taking care of town and city beaches? The City Council of Daytona Beach Shores answered recently in a 3-to-2 vote: the users.

The outcry was quick and loud. Even the mayor was opposed. Opponents expressed fears of parking spilling up into nearby residential areas, of loss of business, of spoiling one of nature's wonders.

''It's a move toward making the beach exclusive; it's a bad way to raise money,'' says Richard Kane, former mayor of Daytona Beach. ''Most tourists will be able to pay it . . . but it acts as a deterrent to freely enjoying it.''

A developer in the area is suing the city on the grounds that an inadequate public hearing was held on the issue; that the toll booths interfere with traffic on the beach - which an attorney contends has been defined as a ''public highway;'' that the long years of free use have established the right of continued free use by the public.

But, says Daytona Beach Shores city council member Don Large, ''We're in a corner.'' A new Florida law limits property tax increases a city may charge and the city was falling behind in expenses vs. planned revenues. Large estimates the city spends about $150,000 a year to maintain the beach.

''Anyone who uses something should pay,'' he says. Pedestrians are free; only vehicles are charged for parking or driving on the beach.

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