When it comes to fishing, boating and other sporting activities, getting access to Long Island Sound is anything but a day at the beach.
While sunbathers can flock to large state parks, those who seek less crowded spots for recreational use say a limited number of access points and restricted or expensive parking make getting to the water difficult.
Access has been so bad for so long that when Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced in June that $4 million in grants intended for cities and towns to use for the broad purposes of “habitat restoration and coastal projects” would be available this fiscal year, longtime shoreline access advocates shrugged.
As far as they’re concerned, any state money that isn’t specifically allocated to access improvement efforts will simply not be put to such use.
And in fact, none of the 22 applications received by the state Department of Environmental Protection last month focuses specifically on improving access. Dennis Schain, a DEP spokesman, said the department believes the projects being considered, “if anything, are likely to create improvements in access.”
That’s the approach to access that infuriates people like Tom Boyd, president of the Connecticut Outdoor Recreation Coalition. To him, it’s a classic example of the state’s approach to Long Island Sound: long on rhetoric and short on specifics.
“I have lobbied for years for more access to the shoreline. I don’t know of any other state that provides less access to their shoreline,” Boyd said.
Part of the problem is that the development of Connecticut’s shoreline began 300 years ago. David Kozak, in the DEP’s Office of Long Island Sound Programs, noted, “We’re between New York and Boston, two very densely populated areas, and we have extremely high land values, which makes it difficult to acquire new property for access.”
For a number of reasons, projects that seek to improve access to the shore just don’t get any traction in Hartford, Boyd said.
He suggested that the legislature give DEP the responsibility it deserves by allocating revenue from the sale of fishing licenses to the department’s fisheries division rather than the state’s general fund.
Tim Coleman, former managing editor of the Fisherman magazine’s New England edition, argues that wealthy property owners are one of the main reasons access is so poor. The number of access points along the coast isn’t the main problem, Coleman said. The problem is access to the access points.
“Go to Greenwich or Westport and try to go surf fishing,” Coleman said. “The area between high water and low water is public property, but try getting there.”
“That’s the kind of thing people face here,” Coleman said. While fishermen routinely sneak through private property to get to the water, public funding goes to projects designed to protect private property values.
According to DEP, when land fronting on the estuaries that drain into the sound and tidal wetlands is included, the entire coastal frontage of the sound measures 583 miles. Of that, 84.5 miles is sandy beach. The rest is bedrock, marsh, glacial drift or artificial fill.
Since 1980, the state’s Coastal Management Program has added about 12 miles of public access to Long Island Sound.
In 2006, the U.S. Congress ratified the Long Island Sound Stewardship Act, which allocated $25 million per year to the Long Island region for environmental protection and improvements to public access. In its justification for the act, Congress noted that Long Island Sound contributes more than $5 billion to the regional economy annually, but that only 20 percent of the sound’s total shoreline is accessible to the public.
Overprotection of the sound is understandable. Connecticut’s shoreline can be crowded and traffic-choked. It is estimated that 8 million people live within the Long Island Sound watershed and 28 million people live within 50 miles of the sound.
That’s a lot of environmental pressure, and it’s only within the last two generations that efforts to protect the sound have come to fruition.
In the last 30 years, 1,500 acres of Connecticut tidal wetlands have been restored, according to DEP.
The challenge is balancing protection with the public’s right to its coastline, said Mark Tedesco, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Island Sound office director. Tedesco is part of the Long Island Sound Study, a partnership between the EPA and the states of Connecticut and New York aimed at restoring and protecting the sound’s ecosystem.
“There’s both compatibility and tension,” Tedesco said. “If the public can’t access Long Island Sound, the broader public is not going to be as engaged in efforts to preserve it. Generally, anecdotally, New York and Connecticut public access is fairly limited.”
But the tide, as it were, may be turning.
The state doesn’t necessarily promote increased coastal access. DEP typically works with coastal towns and non-government land conservation organizations to improve access to the sound. It also publishes the Connecticut Coastal Access Guide, Kozak noted.
But lately, Connecticut public coastal land acquisitions have received federal funding intended to assist coastal states acquire land for protection, as well as compatible public use, Kozak said.
Matthew L. Brown is an award-winning journalist who has covered a wide range of subjects as a reporter for the Willimantic Chronicle and the Hartford Business Journal. He is currently the managing editor of the Worcester Business Journal in Worcester, Mass. He lives in Dayville.