CT beach access debate rages on as proposal targeting high fees for out-of-town residents quietly dies

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A bill that would have banned municipalities from charging exorbitant fees that prevent many out-of-towners from using public beaches will die without a vote or public hearing this year.

Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, co-chair of the Planning and Development Committee, confirmed this week that her panel would not act this session on the measure, which would also have prevented communities from banning visitors from the out of town. exclusively to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their beaches.

McCarthy Vahey said his panel had its hands full this session with two other contentious issues, municipal zoning reform and affordable housing, and simply couldn’t get to another hot topic before its April 5 reporting deadline.


“We’ve certainly seen tremendous public interest and involvement” in the measures being raised that address the need for more affordable housing in Connecticut’s suburbs, she said.

But McCarthy Vahey was quick to add that the beach access debate “is conversational. There are very real access issues, and we recognize that municipalities had questions and concerns about investments and costs. There is an important discussion to be had there.

This discussion isn’t going away anytime soon, Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who presented the beach access billsaid Wednesday.

“I personally won’t let him go, and I’m sure other organizations won’t,” said Lemar, whose efforts quickly earned praise from the Connecticut chapters of the NAACP and American Civil. Liberty Union.

“I am embarrassed that the will of the General Assembly is not to take action this year,” he said.

Lemar says Connecticut’s coastline and beaches are “a vital asset” that has benefited from millions of dollars of public investment in clean air and water development programs and parks, and every resident should have the opportunity to take advantage of it.

But some riverside communities, particularly in Connecticut’s affluent southwest corner, say parking is limited at municipal beaches and residents should be given priority over out-of-town visitors.

They also say some communities are investing heavily in their beaches, relying on more than revenue from parking fees and access passes to pay for maintenance and amenities.

Lemar and other critics counter that argument as an excuse to deprive the urban poor — and especially racial and ethnic minorities — of their beaches.

Westport, an affluent community in Fairfield County, made headlines three years ago when local authorities set prices for a season pass for beach parking at $50 for residents – and $775 for visitors to most other cities. Residents of nearby Weston pay $375.

David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said when Lemar introduced his bill that equitable beach access is an issue that has haunted Connecticut for far too long, with most restrictive policies based on the politics, not health science.

“We know that Connecticut has a long history of coastal towns using a number of different policies to keep a number of people off their beaches,” he said, adding that “often those policies are nothing more than thinly veiled racist policies.”

And Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, said, “Westport should be ashamed of themselves. Connecticut should not be involved in this level of discrimination these days. »

Governor Ned Lamont, a wealthy Greenwich businessman, stayed out of the beach access debate.

The governor’s office took no position on Lemar’s bill when it was introduced in early February. And when asked about the measure on Wednesday, Lamont communications director Max Reiss said the governor’s office had reviewed the bill but had no position.

The Lamont administration, through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, had proposed an alternative measure which would have authorized DEEP to study “any [beach] fees or other means of limiting access that have a disparate impact on such a potential visitor depending on their residence” and to report next January.

DEEP Commissioner Katie S. Dykes testified before the Planning and Development Committee this week that the state’s Coastal Management Act policies are not as clear and explicit as they could be. to promote public access to municipal beaches”.

But, like the governor’s office, the department has not commented on Lemar’s proposal to immediately ban beach access fees based on residency.

McCarthy Vahey said this week she expects the study measure to pass, but added that some who oppose higher beach fees were angered that a scan was necessary.

“I think a lot of people feel like we already know what needs to happen,” she said.

Lemar’s bill would also have prevented communities from selectively barring nonresidents from using the beach in response to the pandemic. A handful of communities closed their beaches to nonresidents last summer to reduce crowd sizes and ensure social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Lemar said the solution should have been to limit overall attendance — but not by excluding out-of-town visitors.

Fairfield, who charges non-residents $250 for a seasonal beach pass — compared to the $25 residents pay — temporarily blocked residents from outside its shores last summer.

Lamont’s hometown of Greenwich also restricted beach access to foreigners last year for coronavirus lockdown reasons, and he set prices in 2019 which charge non-residents $150 for a seasonal beach pass, while residents pay $35.

Lemar said he expects the policies could spark public protests or legal challenges this summer.

“Legislators cannot run away from this issue,” he added. “Publicly, not a single person is prepared to justify the behaviors of many communities.”

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