A New Haven lawmaker is trying to stop municipalities from imposing exorbitant fees that restrict many out-of-towners from using public beaches.
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, introduced a bill that also would prevent communities from barring beach visitors from other towns on grounds that this would prevent COVID-19 spread.
“It doesn’t surprise me that every approach that any of these communities take is to limit who can access public beaches,” Lemar said, calling these measures akin to the racially restrictive land covenants and exclusionary zoning policies that bar many poor Black and Hispanic residents from affluent suburbs.
Connecticut’s shoreline and beaches are “a core asset” that have benefitted from millions of dollars of public investments in clean air and water and park development programs, Lemar said, adding every resident should have an opportunity to enjoy them.
But some shoreline communities say that simply isn’t realistic.
Parking is limited at municipal beaches, and residents should have priority over visitors from out-of-town, some leaders said.
Westport, an affluent Fairfield County community, made headlines three years ago when local officials set the prices for a seasonal beach parking pass at $50 for residents — and $775 for visitors from most other towns. Residents of neighboring Weston pay $375.
But some communities invest more in their beaches than others do, and Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe said the fee schedule is designed to spread costs fairly.
Compo Beach, the town’s main shoreline attraction, includes pavilions, picnic tables and cooking areas, restrooms, pickleball courts and a skate park, and it is adjacent to two marinas.
Adding and maintaining these amenities requires more funding than $50 local beach passes can raise. Town residents cover the bulk of the extra costs through their property tax payments, but the higher parking charges on visitors from other towns is an attempt to share some of the burden, Marpe said.
A few years ago back, “our own residents could not get to the beach because of a lack of parking spaces,” he said, adding this was unfair given that those same residents financed the beach’s development.
But Lemar said it simply isn’t realistic to expect poorer families to pay $775, adding that Connecticut’s largest cities don’t charge neighboring suburban residents for all of the benefits they provide.
“People in New Haven pay for the sidewalks, but we don’t say to the people in Milford, ‘If you work here, you can’t walk on our sidewalks.’”
“Westport should be ashamed of themselves,” said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP. “In this day and time, Connecticut should not be involved in this level of discrimination.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss, declined to comment Tuesday. Lamont’s home town of Greenwich set prices in 2019 that charged non-residents $150 for a seasonal beach pass, while residents paid $35.
Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo could not be reached for comment.
Lemar’s bill also would prevent communities from selectively banning non-residents from beach use in response to pandemic. A handful of communities closed their beaches to non-residents last summer to reduce crowd size and ensure social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Lemar said the solution could be to limit overall attendance — but not by excluding out-of-town visitors.
Fairfield, which charges non-residents $250 for a seasonal beach pass — versus the $25 residents pay — temporarily blocked out-of-towners from its shores last summer.
“To me, it was a public safety issue,” said Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick. “My biggest concern was allowing people to socially distance.”
The Connecticut ACLU, which cautioned communities against these policies last summer, hasn’t reviewed Lemar’s bill to date.
But Executive Director David McGuire said fair beach access is an issue that has haunted Connecticut for too long, with most restrictive policies grounded in politics, not health science.
“We know Connecticut has a long history of shoreline towns using a number of different policies to keep a number of people off their beaches,” he said, adding that “a lot of times, these policies are nothing more than thinly veiled racist policies.”