A bill that would have banned municipalities from imposing exorbitant fees that restrict many out-of-towners from using public beaches will die without a vote or a public hearing this year.
Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, co-chairwoman of the Planning and Development Committee, confirmed this week that her panel won’t act this session on the measure, which also would have prevented communities from barring out-of-town visitors exclusively to prevent COVID-19 spread at their beaches.
McCarthy Vahey said her panel has its hands full this session with two other controversial issues, municipal zoning reform and affordable housing, and simply couldn’t tackle one more hot-button topic before its reporting deadline of April 5.
“We’ve certainly seen tremendous interest and public involvement” in measures raised that address the need for more affordable housing in Connecticut’s suburbs, she said.
But McCarthy Vahey quickly added that the beach access debate “is worthy of conversation. There are very real issues of access, and we recognize the municipalities had questions and concerns about investments and costs. There is an important discussion to be had there.”
That discussion won’t go away any time soon, Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who introduced the beach access bill, said Wednesday.
“I personally will not let it go away, and I’m certain other organizations will not,” said Lemar, whose efforts quickly earned praise from the Connecticut chapters of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I’m embarrassed that the will of the General Assembly is not to move forward this year with action,” he said.
Lemar says 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, and every resident should have an opportunity to enjoy them.
But some shoreline communities, particularly in Connecticut’s affluent southwestern corner, say parking is limited at municipal beaches and residents should have priority over visitors from out-of-town.
They also say some communities invest heavily in their beaches, relying on more than revenues from parking fees and access passes to pay for maintenance and amenities.
Lemar and other critics counter this argument is an excuse to price poor urban residents — and particularly racial and ethnic minorities — out of their beaches.
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.
David McGuire, executive director of the Connecticut ACLU, said when Lemar introduced his bill that 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.”
And Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, said, “Westport should be ashamed of themselves. In this day and time, Connecticut should not be involved in this level of discrimination.”
Gov. Ned Lamont, a wealthy Greenwich businessman, has stayed out of the beach access debate.
The governor’s office took no position on Lemar’s bill when it was introduced in early February. And when asked about the measure Wednesday, Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss, said the governor’s office had reviewed the bill but had no position.
The Lamont administration, through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, had proposed an alternative measure that would have authorized DEEP to study “any [beach] fees or other means of limiting access that disparately impact any such potential visitor based on residency” and report back next January.
DEEP Commissioner Katie S. Dykes testified this week before the Planning and Development Committee that “the policies of the state Coastal Management Act are not as clear and explicit in promoting public access to municipal beaches as they could be.”
But, like the governor’s office, the department did not comment on Lemar’s proposal to immediately prohibit beach access fees based on residency.
McCarthy Vahey said this week she expects the study measure will be voted upon, but added some who oppose the higher beach fees were irritated at the idea that an analysis was needed.
“I think there are many folks who have the sense that we already know what needs to happen,” she said.
Lemar’s bill also would have prevented 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 should have been 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.
Lamont’s home town of Greenwich also restricted beach access to out-of-towners last year on grounds of coronavirus containment, and it set prices in 2019 that charge non-residents $150 for a seasonal beach pass, while residents pay $35.
Lemar said he expects the policies could trigger public protests or legal challenges this summer.
“Legislators cannot run away from this issue,” he added. “Publicly, not a single person is willing to justify the behaviors of a lot of communities.”