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Pandemic Restrictions Revive Controversial Conn. Beach Access Case

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Some shoreline cities and towns in Connecticut are reviving a controversial practice by restricting beach access to residents only on weekends in response to COVD-19.

Cities and towns in Connecticut aren’t supposed to restrict beaches to residents only. That rule goes back to a 2001 court case brought by Brendan Leydon, at the time a law school student.

“I started a jogging route with a friend in Stamford into Old Greenwich where the beach was. And we were stopped and told you can’t even set foot walking in the park if you’re not a resident. Decided to challenge that law,” he said.

And Leydon won in a State Supreme Court decision.

“We’ve seen instances where, whether it be a public health crisis or periods of social upheaval, wealthier more exclusive communities acting on their exclusionary impulses,” said Andrew Kahrl, a University of Virginia professor who wrote a book about the past controversy**.

Shoreline communities, including Fairfield and East Haven, say the new rule is an emergency measure to protect against Covid-19. But David McGuire of the ACLU of Connecticut said there’s a long history in the state of communities using these kinds of restrictions to discriminate.

“Really, these in the past have been restrictions aimed at keeping people out that are not from the town and in many cases people out that don’t look like people from the town,” McGuire said.

McGuire said they will monitor cities and towns that ban non-residents. He says it’s important to put in policies on beaches that enforce social distancing and other health measures.

“And the way to get at that is by having caps on the number of people that can be on the beach at any given time. Creating restrictions where non-residents can’t go on the beach does not achieve that goal,” he said.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said he supports efforts to protect public health, but they shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to deprive people of constitutional rights.

Mario Coppola is a corporation counsel for the city of Norwalk. He said the city’s first reaction to the Covid-19 quarantine was not initially to prohibit non-residents.

“Norwalk residents have always been allowed to go to the beaches,” Coppola said. “In fact, the parking fees have been fairly modest in comparison to what non-residents pay in other communities in Fairfield County.”

Coppola said the city only restricted parking areas at first. In fact, Coppola says at some point during the summer, when cases were trending downward, the city decided to lessen those restrictions. But a few weeks ago, the city reversed course.

“Temperatures were consistently higher, so there was much more of a demand to go to the beaches in Norwalk,” he said. “At the same time, many of the other surrounding beachfront communities prohibited non-residents, which led to more residents being forced to go to the Norwalk beaches.”

Coppola said the move is in line with the state Supreme Court’s 2001 ruling -- and he says it’s only temporary.

**Listen to Tom Kuser's 2018 interview with Professor Kahrl

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
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