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Curtailed Connecticut Beach Access For Non-Residents During COVID Crisis Seen As Unjust

StockSnap from Pixabay

Some shoreline cities and towns in Connecticut revived a controversial practice this summer — they restricted their beaches to residents only. Municipalities say it’s to protect from COVID-19, but the practice has a long and segregationist history.

Like a lot of Connecticut residents, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas has a favorite beach. Hers is in Old Saybrook — it’s called Harvey’s Beach. She took her family there one weekend in July.

“And was greeted with someone at the gate who said this is only for residents. We were turned away, ultimately,” she said.

Towns say limiting how many people use the beach at once helps enforce COVID-19 social distancing rules. The beach was still letting in locals — but Thomas lives in Hartford, 40 miles inland. She said there were only about 10 cars in the parking lot.

“Ten cars … you would be able to social distance times, like, 20,” she said.

Thomas is a reporter for the Connecticut Mirror. And this COVID-era policy — in place in cities and towns all along the state’s shoreline — got her thinking.

“I’ve covered a lot of housing disparities, and who can afford to live in what towns. And oftentimes, you find that the people who can afford to live in certain communities, there’s an overlay with race and ethnicity. Connecticut is one of the most segregated states, period,” she said.

And that segregation has played out on its beaches before. Andrew Kahrl is a historian from the University of Virginia who’s researched the history of inequality on the state’s beaches. He said it started with the rise in municipal beaches in the mid-20th century.

“Localities — especially privileged and wealthier communities — would place restrictions on public access, the most extreme of which being ordinances that restricted access to residents only,” Kahrl said.

By the late 1960s, only seven miles of Connecticut’s 250-plus-mile-long shoreline were open to the public.

To challenge this, an activist named Ned Coll bused in families from cities — often Black and brown families — to test these restrictions. Coll told children to stay below the high tide line — in the area considered public space — rather than higher on the beach, which could be designated private.

Kahrl is the author of a book about Coll and his campaign, called Free the Beaches. He says beach restrictions are often part of a larger problem with wealthy cloistered communities.

"Beach restrictions complement and reinforce exclusionary practices in other areas, like housing and schools. If we’re ever going to achieve a more equitable and inclusive society as a whole, we need to embrace the principle of public access and public space.”

These ordinances have faced a lot of court challenges. One case started with a man named Brendan Leydon in 2001.

“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,” Leydon said.

Leydon was in law school at the time. He thought Greenwich’s rule was unjust. So he challenged it in court — and he won. The Supreme Court ruled cities and towns could only close their beaches to the public in cases of emergency.

Leydon said while COVID-19 is obviously an emergency, this year’s move toward more restrictions has been concerning.

“If that same town allows in-person restaurants and bars and in-person schools while maintaining a non-resident ban on their beaches, it’d be hard to see how there’s any rational basis to support that,” he said.

Cities like Norwalk and Bridgeport have also restricted beach access. A city attorney for Norwalk said the city was forced to issue the ruling when other cities and towns closed their beaches — because it funnelled more non-residents toward Norwalk.

The attorney said he’s confident the move is in line with the 2001 State Supreme Court ruling.

Jacquline Rabe Thomas — the journalist who got turned away from the beach in Old Saybrook — said the decision may follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

“Are they legally violating any laws? I’ll leave that for the lawyers to debate. But the reality is, it was a really hot summer. And there were a lot a lot of Hartford residents, other residents from other communities, that didn’t have access to shoreline beaches this summer,” she said.

Some cities and towns say their beach restrictions will end next month — including Norwalk, where restrictions end on October 15.

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.