Sorry, that surf and sand are for local toes only
By Lisa Prevost
Connecticut and New York residents who don’t live along the coast are likely feeling the heat more than usual this summer, as one town after another has closed off its beaches to everyone except locals.
Citing the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Connecticut officials have instituted varying degrees of “residents only” policies on beaches in every coastal Fairfield County town except Greenwich, with Darien and Stamford the latest to shut off access. Some towns farther up the shoreline, including Milford, Madison and Groton, have enacted similar measures.
Many Long Island municipalities are also restricting access to town beaches, including Long Beach, Hempstead, Huntington and Southampton.
By shunning outsiders, towns appear to be butting up against legal mandates that require them to maintain public access. But officials argue that with state beaches operating at reduced capacity, town beaches are getting much more traffic than usual, creating a hazard for residents.
Jennings Beach in Fairfield, Connecticut, is open only to residents on weekends, a policy adopted in mid-July after First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick received a rash of complaints that there were too many people trying to stake out a spot on the sand.
“We had people parking all over the beach area, parking a mile or two away, or taking an Uber and walking on,” she said. “We have multiple ways to get onto our beaches, right in the middle of residential areas. People were emailing me like crazy saying it was unsafe.”
Fairfield has since fenced off various entry points to Jennings and other beaches, posted police officers and raised parking fines from $80 to $200. Up to 150 nonresident vehicles are allowed to park in the Jennings lot on weekdays for a $50 fee.
On the first Saturday the policy took effect, many residents were caught off guard when a parks and recreation worker stood on the main pathway to the beach and asked them to show ID. Most, though, expressed relief at the new requirement. “Our virus numbers in Fairfield are low right now — we’d all like it to stay that way,” said Sara Tieke, who was biking past the beach with her husband, Brad. “You have to draw the line somewhere.”
But civil-liberties advocates say such restrictions conflict with a 2001 state Supreme Court decision that found that Greenwich’s residents-only policy, which had been in place for decades, was unconstitutional. Since then, towns have opened their beaches to nonresidents, although many still effectively restrict access by limiting the number of available passes or charging hefty daily parking fees.
David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the 2001 case, said the ACLU is concerned that the virus is being used to justify exclusionary beach policies that in decades past were used for racial injustice.
“I’m not saying that’s happening now, but we can’t allow the pandemic to be an excuse for unfair treatment of people,” McGuire said. “Capacity limits are important, but a resident-only scheme doesn’t address the issue of social distancing. What they really ought to do is put a cap on how many people can be on the beach and allow people in on a first-come, first-served basis. That is a policy grounded in science.”
Further, he said, policies that reserve the beach for residents on weekends while opening it up to nonresidents on weekdays “are clearly designed to give preferential or exclusive access to residents during certain periods, which is unfair and unconstitutional.”
But municipal officials do not want to have to turn away their own residents on busy weekends.
“Our taxpayers pay for lifeguards, Department of Public Works employees for maintenance of the beaches, law enforcement — it’s a lot of money,” Kupchick said. “To say to your residents who pay that, ‘You can’t go’ — it doesn’t seem right.”
McGuire said his office will scrutinize all residents-only ordinances and their enforcement to determine if they comply with the 2001 Supreme Court decision.
In Nassau County, on Long Island, the city of Long Beach stopped selling nonresident daily beach passes on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as of July 23. The beach was getting too crowded, in large part because of overflow from Jones Beach and Robert Moses, which were reaching capacity early in the day on weekends, said Joe Brand, the city’s interim parks and recreation commissioner.
“We were overrun with nonresident sales on the weekends in addition to our resident clientele,” Brand said.
Back in Connecticut, Brenden Leydon, the Stamford lawyer who brought the lawsuit challenging Greenwich’s exclusionary policy 19 years ago, said that the pandemic makes the issue of access more “murky” but that town officials should try to approach it with flexibility.
“They should perhaps take it on a day-by-day basis, let’s see how it’s going, rather than just say the beach is closed to nonresidents until October,” Leydon said. Such “blanket declarations,” he noted, are hard to justify when the towns are welcoming nonresidents to come to their restaurants.
Greenwich is trying to strike a balance, making available up to 350 nonresident beach passes a day, said Fred Camillo, first selectman. The passes are $8, and there is a $40 parking fee at Greenwich Point and Byram Park beaches.
“You want to be as welcoming as you can while being fair to the residents who are footing the bill, too,” Camillo said.