Beach access advocates ready to fight during CT election season

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

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

And while the latest effort – tied to a study of parking rates and local budgets for beaches – appears to have stalled, reformers are adapting again, preparing to make equitable beach access a statewide campaign issue this summer.

“They [legislators] know that it is wrong to discriminate against people who don’t live in the city,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who acknowledges that exclusionary practices on beaches have existed for decades. “I think people should report Connecticut’s story – and their reluctance to deal with it.”

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

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

But others say it’s about local control, and 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 it goes beyond what the authority of the state should be.”

On paper, the issue is long settled.

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

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

rock breaks scissors

The court ruling does not directly address parking, so some coastal towns have started charging much higher rates for parking.

In Fairfield, non-residents pay $250 for a season 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,” Connecticut NAACP president Scot X. Esdaile told the CT Mirror in an interview last year. “Connecticut these days shouldn’t be involved in this level of discrimination.”

The state chapter of the ACLU also opposed these policies.

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

Paper cut with scissors

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

But suburban riverside communities countered that the disparate fees were a matter of fairness. Local residents invest heavily in their beaches through their property taxes, not just parking fees.

Connecticut should not be involved in this level of discrimination these days. »

Scot X. Esdaile, Connecticut NAACP

In Darien — where non-residents pay $53 per day for beach parking and residents pay $112 for the whole summer – flood damage repairs, wetland remediation and other improvements at two beaches could cost around $5 million, the Local Parks and Recreation Commission testified before lawmakers this year. “These expenses will be borne exclusively by the taxpayers of Darien,” he added.

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

The paper covers the rock

But at the end of last month, beach parking reformers adjusted again.

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

Lemar’s study bill was approved by the Transportation Committee, co-chaired by the New Haven legislator, by a vote of 24 to 13.

But he and other supporters acknowledged the measure is unlikely to get a vote in the House or Senate. Too many lawmakers won’t come close to anything related to expanding beach access.

“We will release the names of lawmakers who will vote for this overreach of the state in the affairs of individual cities,” Fairfield’s Linda Devaney testified before lawmakerscalling any state regulation of local parking fees “another attempt at social engineering”.

Carney, who voted against studying city spending on beaches, said it would be the first step toward removing local control.

“For me, it’s just opening the door,” the Old Lyme rep said.

The most senior leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven and House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford, have both said they do not anticipate the base is pushing for action this year.

I don’t like the state telling communities what they can or cannot charge.

Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme

But if municipal spending on beaches is not compiled, reformers’ efforts to overcome this objection are once again thwarted.

Keep hoping for a compromise

Looney and Ritter, who also oppose exorbitant parking fees at the municipal beach, say the matter could end up being settled in court if a consensus is not reached quickly.

And with the 2022 state election season just getting started, the candidates so far are edging slightly closer to the beach question.

Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat from the affluent riverside community of Greenwich, said through communications director Max Reiss he was ready to hear more about the beach controversy.

“The administration supports 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 the ball was in the legislature’s court.

“This policy still hasn’t garnered enough support for a vote in the legislature,” Stefanowski said, “so why would we spend more taxpayer resources studying something that hasn’t garnered enough support? to even get a vote?”

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

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, says he thinks there is common ground that would address local concerns and give more residents across Connecticut access to municipal beaches.

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

It’s very territorial. They don’t see the state of Connecticut. They see their beach. … The reality is that it’s not about revenue. It’s about keeping people away.

Senator Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester

Residents of coastal cities don’t just worry about finding a parking spot at their local beach, Hwang said.

Many municipal roads along the coast are narrow and without sidewalks, but attract huge amounts of vehicles and pedestrians.

And public safety isn’t the only risk getting worse as more people hit the beaches, Hwang noted. Waste and pollution are also becoming more problematic.

But the reality is that while only 24 of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns are located along Long Island Sound, they don’t hold the beautiful coastline on their own. Rep. Gerardo Reyes, D-Waterbury, co-chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, noted that the state invests millions of dollars each year in upgrading sewage treatment plants and other drinking water initiatives that control growth. bacteria and benefit the entire coastline.

After a hurricane or tropical storm, the state often funds soil erosion repairs and other improvements to damaged beaches – municipal and state-owned.

Reyes predicted this beach relief would become a sore spot if exclusionary parking policies continue. “It takes us down this slippery slope, doesn’t it?” he said.

Senator Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester, who co-chairs the planning and development committee that oversees most beach access bills, said there was little chance of compromise unless that city leaders and shoreline legislators are helping their constituents change a mindset that was set decades ago.

“It’s 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 that it’s not about revenue. It’s about keeping people away. »

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