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Advocates are fighting to expand access to Connecticut beaches

Crescent Beach in Niantic, Connecticut.
Wikimedia Commons
Crescent Beach in Niantic, Connecticut.

Connecticut beaches will soon be filled with residents looking to enjoy the summer sun. However, residents who do not live on the coast may have trouble finding a beach to go to.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Keith Phaneuf to discuss his article, “Beach access advocates ready to take their fight into CT election season,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Connecticut coastal communities are trying to restrict beach access to non-residents, and this has been a perennial problem in Connecticut. Years ago, Ned Cole, a Hartford resident, made headlines when he organized a dramatic way to challenge the restrictions. Could you tell us about Cole and what he did?

KP: Ned Cole was making headlines in the 1970s, taking busloads of children from poor urban centers, we're talking primarily African American and Latino children, down to Connecticut's beaches, because we have 169 cities and towns, but only 24 of them border the Atlantic Ocean, and there's only so much beach access. There are state beaches, but there are municipal beaches that have traditionally only been open to the residents of those communities. And Ned Cole was one of the first people to really challenge that.

WSHU: In 2001, the state Supreme Court handed out a decision affirming the right of non-residents to use Greenwich beaches. I thought that would have settled the matter.

KP: Unfortunately, what happened from there is, people then said, well, if we can't officially bar you from using the beach, we will charge you a significant amount of money to park at the beach. And unless you live within walking distance, which is pretty hard if, by definition, you're coming from another community, it essentially closes access. And what we're looking at now, what that's evolved into, I'll just give you a couple of examples. In Fairfield, non-residents pay $250 for a seasonal pass, that's 10 times what locals are charged. The most extreme example is found in Westport, where if you live in the town, you pay $50 for a summer beach pass. For residents of most other communities, they do have an exception for Weston, which is a neighboring suburb, but for all the residents of all the other communities, it's $775. That's effectively closing access.

WSHU: New Haven Representative Roland Lemar is proposing some type of solution. What's he proposing?

KP: Well, the first solution that he proposed was to say, basically, you can't do this, you've got to charge everybody, folks from your town, folks from out of your town, the same parking fee. That effort has been bogged down over the last two years. And one of the primary defenses that shoreline communities have raised is, we don't just support our beaches with the parking fees, our local residents pay a lot to support their beach, right through their property tax bill. So it wouldn't be fair to charge them the same amount that you charge someone from out of town. What that's led to is a new approach where there's been a push to study how much these towns are charging. And some of the folks who support opening beaches have said, great, let's find out how much these towns are spending on their beaches. Rather, I should say how much are they spending. And what if the state were to reimburse you for that, now could we charge everybody the same price? And now we're seeing opposition to the study bill. I don't know if it's really for some people about study versus is it really just about access.

WSHU: But basically there's going to be no action on any legislation this session.

KP: I would agree. What we're hearing is — we're hearing it from Representative Roland Lemar, we're hearing from Representative Geraldo Reyes, Democrat from Waterbury, who is the head of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, we're hearing from others — they're saying if you're running for a state office, and it's a state election this year, so this summer and this fall, you should be prepared to answer questions. And they're encouraging people to say OK, ask your candidates, do you believe communities who control access to the water should be allowed to effectively limit that, especially given and I should have mentioned this earlier in our conversation, the state invests millions of dollars every year in making sure that the waters of Long Island Sound are very clean. All the taxpayers, not just the locals of those shoreline communities contribute toward that.

WSHU: And also after major disasters, there's a lot of money spent rebuilding a lot of those beaches.

KP: That's a really good point. In fact, some of the folks who have been fighting to open access to beaches say if things don't change, you know, the next time you get a really bad tropical storm or a really bad hurricane, and you'll often see that on the State Bond Commission agenda, some money to maybe fix some soil erosion or some other problem at one of those beaches, things that normally nobody fights about. They say don't be surprised if you start seeing a fight about that.

WSHU: Now, you know, if you're gonna make it a campaign issue, at the top of the ticket this fall's election, will be for the Democrats Governor Lamont, and likely for the Republicans it will be Stefanowski. Both of them come from communities that have beaches, is that going to be a partisan issue this summer campaign and heading to the fall election?

KP: So far, there's been a lot of deflection. Last year, I couldn't get Governor Lamont to state a position on this other than to say, well, the shoreline community spends a lot. This year Governor Lamont has said he does support studying, but he has not said yet whether he believes shoreline communities should be allowed to charge more for parking access. Bob Stefanowski, the Republican from Madison who lost to Ned Lamont in 2018, he basically just said, well, the Legislature can't seem to come up with a bill that they're ready to vote on. So why should we get involved in this if they're not even ready to take a position? Sort of basically saying, the ball is in the Legislature’s court right now.

WSHU: And the Legislature certainly is not going to be dealing with it. So again, it doesn't seem as if this will be a partisan issue, because we have Republicans who are from some of these communities, and we have Democrats who are also from the same communities.

KP: No, it's not a partisan issue in terms of Democrats and Republicans. But you're right. It's certainly a divisive issue. It's a suburban versus urban issue, because even the suburban legislators from inland, for the most part, don't want to mess with this because they know that they might need the support of their suburban legislators from the shoreline at some point, and that's where the dividing line is right now.

WSHU: So how effective would a campaign on this issue be this summer?

KP: I think it's going to come down to, at some point, either the advocates for beach access gain some more traction on this in the Legislature, they keep shining light on it, they keep demanding people take a position because very few people want to stand up and say, communities should flat out be able to restrict access in any way they want. Or it could wind up in court, in which case they could just leave it eventually for a group like perhaps the ACLU to organize a lawsuit and see if a state judge wants to say this is against the Constitution.

WSHU: From the history that we've had, court decisions are never quite a clear cut, as is what happened with the Greenwich case. They open doors to other ways of trying to get around.

KP: It is usually an ongoing struggle. You’re right.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.
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