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Beach access advocates are ready to take their fight into Connecticut election season

Westport's Compo Beach. Non residents are charged $775 a year for a parking permit.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
Westport's Compo Beach. Non residents are charged $775 a year for a parking permit.

Activists trying to open Connecticut’s municipal beaches to non-residents have been caught for years in a game of rock-paper-scissors.

Every time they employ a new strategy, the opposition counters.

And while the latest effort — tied to a study of parking rates and local beach budgets — appears to have bogged down, reformers are adjusting again, preparing to make fair beach access a statewide campaign issue this summer.

“They [legislators] know it is wrong to discriminate against people who don’t live in the town,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who recognizes exclusionary beach practices have existed for decades. “I think people should have to account for Connecticut’s history — and their unwillingness to address it.”

“This is a divisive issue, but not along party lines,” said Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, who’s been fighting for decades to remove barriers to beach access. “I think the issue will keep coming back.”

Winkler, 71, volunteered in the early 1970s with the Hartford Revitalization Corps. Its founder, Hartford native Ned Coll, made headlines nearly 50 years ago by challenging restrictive rules and bringing busloads of Black and Latino children to municipal beaches.

But others say this is an issue of local control, and that the opposition is just as passionate.

“I don’t like the state telling communities what they can or cannot charge,” said Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme. “I just think that is beyond what the state’s authority should be.”

On paper, the issue has been settled for a long time.

The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2001 affirmed the right of non-residents to use municipal beaches, overturning a Greenwich ordinance that had restricted access in that community. The high court found the beach constituted a public forum and non-residents’ access to it was protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But from there the game of rock-paper-scissors took off.

Rock breaks scissors

The court ruling doesn’t directly address parking, so some shoreline towns began charging out-of-towners much higher rates to park.

In Fairfield, non-residents pay $250 for a seasonal pass, 10 times what locals are charged. Westport charges $50 for locals and $775 for residents of most other communities.

“Westport should be ashamed of themselves,” Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, told the CT Mirror in an interview last year. “In this day and time, Connecticut should not be involved in this level of discrimination.”

The state chapter of the ACLU also has objected to these policies.

Without parking, most lawmakers concede, there is effectively no access.

Scissors cut paper

Lemar and other beach access advocates responded in 2021 and again this year with bills that would ban disparate rates, or at least cap the parking charge on non-residents at 50% above locals.

But suburban shoreline communities countered that the disparate fees are about fairness. Shoreline residents invest heavily in their beaches through their property taxes, not just through parking charges.

In Darien — where non-residents pay $53 a day for beach parking and locals pay $112 for the whole summer — flood damage repairs, wetlands remediation and other upgrades to two beaches could cost about $5 million, the local Parks and Recreation Commission testified to legislators this year. “Such expenditures will be borne exclusively by Darien taxpayers,” it added.

Armed with these arguments, legislative committees have killed all bills to limit beach parking prices for two consecutive years without a vote.

Paper covers rock

But late last month, beach parking reformers adjusted yet again.

Lemar amended one of his parking-fee-regulation bills, converting it into a mandate that Connecticut tabulate just how much municipalities invest in their beaches. Armed with this information, reformers say, the state could reimburse shoreline communities for these costs, eliminating the need for higher parking fees on non-residents.

Lemar’s study bill was approved in the Transportation Committee, which the New Haven lawmaker co-chairs, by a vote of 24-13.

But he and other supporters conceded the measure isn’t likely to get a vote in the House or Senate. Too many legislators won’t go near anything connected to expanding beach access.

“We will publicize the names of legislators who vote for this over-reach by the state into the affairs of individual towns,” Linda Devaney of Fairfield testified to legislators, calling any state regulation of local parking fees “another attempt at social engineering.”

Carney, who voted against studying how much towns spend on beaches, said it would be the first step toward removing local control.

“To me it is just opening the door,” the Old Lyme representative said.

The highest ranking leaders in the Democrat-controlled legislature, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven and House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford, both said they don’t anticipate rank-and-file pushing for action this year.

But if municipal spending on beaches isn’t tabulated, reformers’ efforts to overcome that objection are stymied yet again.

Holding out hope for compromise

Looney and Ritter, who also oppose exorbitant municipal beach parking fees, say the matter may end up getting sorted out in court if no consensus is reached soon.

And while the 2022 state election season is just beginning, candidates so far are stepping lightly near the beach issue.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat from the affluent shoreline community of Greenwich, said through communications director Max Reiss that he’s open to learning more about the beach controversy.

“The administration is supportive of the bipartisan effort to take a closer look at this important issue,” he said.

Madison Republican Bob Stefanowski, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial contest to Lamont and is seeking a rematch this year, said this week that the ball is in the legislature’s court.

“This policy has consistently failed to gain enough support for a vote by the legislature,” Stefanowski said, “so why would we spend more taxpayer resources to study something that has failed to get enough support to even get a vote?”

But some in the legislature still hold out hope for a compromise.

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, says he believes there is middle ground that would address local concerns and give more residents from all over Connecticut access to municipal beaches.

“Local control is an important consideration, but I also believe that a sense of fairness and access needs to be considered,” he said.

Residents of shoreline towns are concerned about more than just finding a parking space at their local beach, Hwang said.

Many municipal roads along the coast are narrow and without sidewalks, yet attract huge amounts of vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

And public safety isn’t the only risk that escalates as more people hit the beaches, Hwang noted. Litter and pollution become more problematic as well.

But the reality is while only 24 of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns are located along Long Island Sound, they don’t keep the shoreline beautiful by themselves. Rep. Gerardo Reyes, D-Waterbury, co-chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, noted that the state invests millions of dollars annually on sewage treatment plant upgrades and other clean water initiatives that control bacteria growth and benefit the entire coastline.

After a hurricane or tropical storm, the state often will finance soil erosion repairs and other upgrades to damaged beaches — municipal and state-owned.

Reyes predicted this beach relief will become a sore point if exclusionary parking policies continue. “It’s leading us down that slippery slope, isn’t it?” he said.

Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester, who co-chairs the Planning and Development Committee that oversees most beach access bills, said there’s little chance of compromise unless town leaders and legislators from the shoreline help their constituents change a mindset that was fixed decades ago.

“This is very territorial,” said Cassano, who supports regulating beach parking fees. “They don’t see the state of Connecticut. They see their beach. … The reality is it’s not about revenue. It’s about keeping people away.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.