Recently, State Rep. Roland Lemar introduced a bill in the General Assembly that seeks to prevent coastal towns from using access and parking fees to exclude non-residents from public beaches. Critics charge that these exorbitant fees for non-residents are designed to prevent certain “undesirable” groups from being able to enjoy access to public outdoor spaces in towns they could otherwise not afford to live in.

The proposed bill comes in the wake of a heated 2020 summer that saw numerous shoreline towns use the pandemic to enact temporary bans on nonresidents at town beaches, and activists for coastal access stage protests against these and other exclusionary measures used by towns and homeowners.

Lemar’s bill takes dead aim at the barriers coastal communities built in the wake of the State Supreme Court’s 2001 ruling that declared resident-only ordinances unconstitutional. Following that decision, Greenwich and other towns with a long tradition of excluding non-residents from town beaches quickly adopted prohibitive parking and access fees for nonresidents, coupled with procedures that made it extremely difficult for nonresidents to purchase beach and parking passes.

Months after the 2001 ruling, for instance, Greenwich’s Board of Selectmen voted to enact a new fee schedule requiring nonresidents wishing to enjoy the town beach purchase a $408 seasonal pass. Following a public outcry, the town agreed to lower the price of a nonresident seasonal pass to $308 and agreed to sell day passes to nonresidents for $20. But to get a day pass, nonresidents would have to drive across town to an off-site location.

Madison, which defiantly maintained signs announcing that the town beach was reserved for residents only for years after the 2001 decision, also stopped selling day passes at the beach entrance and instead forced nonresidents to drive to a remote site (open only on weekdays!) to purchase a beach pass. Other towns removed public parking spaces along their beachfront.

Contrary to town officials’ claims, these measures were not aimed at limiting crowd sizes and protecting the environment so much as keeping certain people out. Indeed, for middle-class whites who looked like they belonged, these new rules and regulations were often ignored.

Following the 2001 decision, for example, a white female reporter for the New York Times traveled with her children to the state’s Gold Coast beaches to gauge their accessibility. Despite arriving without beach passes, she and her family were waved in by the guards at town beaches in Madison and Stamford. In Greenwich, the beach guard declined to stamp her beach pass so that she could come back again.

Contrast that with the experiences of Black people who actually lived in these towns. In the summer of 2005, Millie Bonilla, Sheila Foster, and Claudette Rothman, three African American Greenwich residents, were prohibited from entering the beach and threatened with arrest by a guard. Their offense: exercising on the beach! Town officials privately admitted in email correspondence that the guard’s actions were motived by racial prejudice.

For Greenwich and other shoreline towns, public beach access has always been about more than just the beach. Beach access restrictions are one of many measures used to stamp these communities as racially and economically exclusive. They complement and reinforce other measures, such as zoning ordinances, that aim to limit the presence of the poor and people of color in housing markets, schools, and public life. Indeed, it’s telling that opponents of Lemar’s bill have sought to tie it another, seemingly unrelated, bill being debated in the General Assembly that would force cities to provide more affordable housing.

In seeking to scuttle Lemar’s bill, beach access opponents are dusting off an old playbook. Greenwich officials have characterized the bill as unfair to local taxpayers who, they claim, pay for the maintenance and upkeep of town facilities. This ignores, of course, the fact that federal and state taxpayer dollars have also contributed heavily toward the management and preservation of every inch of the state’s shoreline.

They’ve also charged that Lemar’s bill would give priority to non-residents and discriminate against local taxpayers. It will not. The bill simply seeks to ensure that public beaches will be accessible to, well, the general public.

Against charges of elitism and racism, Greenwich officials have stressed the town’s socioeconomic diversity. Indeed, Greenwich is not only home to billionaires and millionaires (most of whom, it should be noted, do not use the town beach); it is also home to many people of color, and many working families living at or below the poverty line. But the issue is not whether the people of Greenwich enjoy access to outdoor recreational spaces. It’s whether the rest of the state’s residents do, as well.

To be clear, this proposed legislation would not lead to overcrowded beaches that might damage coastal environments and endanger public health. Localities would still be free to limit the number of visitors on a given stretch of shore for whatever reason. They simply could not do so in a way that denies or limits access to one segment of the public, and instead on a first come, first served basis.

Now more than ever, lawmakers need to not just protect, but expand, public access to outdoor space. Across the United States, low-income and minority communities suffer from a dearth of public parks, playgrounds, and outdoor nature, the result of decades of public policies that have robbed these communities of green space while exposing its residents to higher levels of air and water pollution. Closing the “nature gap” must be a top priority of lawmakers. Ensuring that all Americans enjoy access to public outdoor space is essential to a healthy democracy and a matter of environmental justice. Lemar’s bill is a step in the right direction.

Andrew Kahrl, is a Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Virginia and is the author of Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline. 

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