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.