When legislators from some of Connecticut’s largest cities pushed last spring to ban exclusionary access policies at municipal beaches, they were told the state first had to study the issue.
But after watching even the study mandate die without a vote and high beach prices and other parking restrictions continue this summer in some affluent communities, urban lawmakers are gearing up for another battle in 2022.
“The legislature had an opportunity to stand up and speak out for public access at these … statewide assets,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven. “We’ve failed to recognize our obligation. There will be increased attention on the shameful unwillingness to tackle the issue this year.”
Lemar said he’s watched with frustration this summer as he received complaints of huge differences in parking prices charged for out-of-towners.
Westport, an affluent community in Fairfield County, has made headlines for years, charging residents $50 for a summer parking pass and requiring visitors from nearly all other communities — except for neighboring Weston — to pay $775.
The Westport Parks and Recreation Department also noticed on its website that only 350 parking emblems would be issued this year, further restricting access.
Fairfield charges residents $25 for a seasonal parking pass while requiring out-of-towners to pay $275.
“I really was taken aback by how high some of these fees are,” said Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “It really is another way of saying: ‘We don’t want you here.’”
Many of the communities that charge visitors high prices for beach parking, Lemar noted, also have highly restrictive zoning regulations designed to limit development of apartments and keep lower-income families from moving into town.
Reyes and Lemar both backed a bill last year that would have prohibited communities from charging higher parking prices to visitors than to locals. The measure also would have stopped municipalities from barring beach visitors from other towns on grounds that it would prevent COVID-19 spread.
The debate “absolutely is not over,” Reyes said “Access to the waterways should be fair.”
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 municipal leaders have said. And with the coronavirus heightening awareness of the importance of social distancing, access limits will remain a concern.
Fairfield blocked out-of-towners from using its beaches during the summer of 2020, citing COVID-19 spread as the reason.
Old Saybrook, a central Connecticut shoreline community, has long closed parking at Town Beach — one of its two municipal beaches — to nonresidents. Locals pay $20 for summer parking pass while visitors from other communities are charged $150.
Leaders in some shoreline communities with sharp price differentials say they invest more in their beaches than other towns do, and the visitors’ charge is designed to spread costs fairly.
But Reyes, Lemar and some groups charge this is little more than thinly veiled racism.
Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP, told the CT Mirror last spring that “Westport should be ashamed of themselves. In this day and time, Connecticut should not be involved in this level of discrimination.”
The Connecticut ACLU cautioned communities against these restrictive policies during the summer of 2020, and 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.
The legislature’s Planning and Development Committee killed Lemar’s and Reyes’ bill without a public hearing or a vote. As a compromise, it endorsed a measure directing Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration — specifically the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Office of Policy and Management — to study beach access issues and report back to the legislature next January.
“I want the people of Connecticut to have access to our beaches, and I want us to do that in a way that is fair to the communities that are making investments,” said Rep. Cristin McCarthy-Vahey, D-Fairfield, House chairwoman of the Planning and Development Committee.
Lamont would not take a position on Lemar’s and Reyes’ bill last spring, but he did say that access rights had to be balanced against the investments local taxpayers made in their beaches. The governor’s home town of Greenwich charges locals $35 or $40 for a seasonal park/beach pass and $175 for nonresidents.
But that debate likely won’t be fleshed out with more research any time soon.
That’s because the Planning and Development study bill died on the House floor without coming to a vote.
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said he believes believes beach parking restrictions have gone too far.
“Why should we restrict things to an excessive degree?” he said. “It does feel particularly egregious.”
But whether a bill is debated depends heavily on whether many legislators or the governor want to see something enacted.
“If it comes to a point where a significant number of people feel passionate,” then there likely will be a vote on beach access in 2022, Rojas added. “We only have so much time to debate any issue.”