Beach access still pricey unless you live in town

It’s been nearly 50 years since anti-poverty activist Ned Coll brought attention to the barriers to public access at the state’s shoreline. He asserted the public’s right to enjoy the beach and exposed some shameful exclusionary practices in this state by bringing busloads of urban children to a variety of beaches.

Decades later, in 2001, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled resident-only beach ordinances unconstitutional.

Much, however, remains the same at the Connecticut shoreline. Except for those fortunate enough to live in a shoreline community or wealthy enough to own a piece of the coast, most of the state’s residents can find it cost prohibitive or extremely difficult to access much of what should be publicly available. By charging non-residents much higher admission or season pass prices for beach access, restricting parking or making it challenging for non-residents to purchase beach passes, municipalities continue to find ways to limit — in some cases, severely limit — the number of non-residents who will set foot on their sands.

Although municipalities might now be complying with the letter of the law handed down when the state Supreme Court ordered an end to the practice of restricting beach use to residents, they still have a way to go to truly follow the spirit of that 2001 ruling.

The “us vs. them” mindset continues. Residents too often blame non-residents when beach problems crop up. Recently, for example, Facebook’s Stonington Community Forum lit up with complaints about mounds of trash left at Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly. While disgust over the trash is justified, not justified were the many comments blaming urban out-of-towners for the litter. These comments were only thinly veiled racist rants.

Thankfully, no southeastern Connecticut community treats non-residents so completely at odds from residents as does Westport, where the parking pass required for beaches costs residents $50 and non-residents $375. Still, fairly large price disparities occur locally. Both East Lyme and Waterford charge non-residents an additional $80 for a beach pass. East Lyme residents pay $35, while non-residents pay $115; and Waterford residents pay $20, compared to the $100 fee charged non-residents.

The disparity in fees in the cities of Groton and New London is not as great. Groton residents pay $32, compared to $70 for non-residents. New London residents pay $85 for a season pass to Ocean Beach, non-residents $120. A smaller beach is free. In Rhode Island, where battles over beach access also have simmered and flared for decades, season passes to state beaches cost residents $30 and non-residents $60.

Charging non-residents much higher beach fees does not seem to result in significant added revenue, something local officials might argue is needed to cover the cost of beach maintenance. Because so many fewer non-resident passes are sold — in 2017 about 3,000 resident passes and 460 non-resident passes in East Lyme, and 975 resident passes and 225 non-resident passes in Waterford — the higher fees result mostly in restricting use by out-of-towners.

Towns also use other means to severely limit non-residents. The city of Groton, for example, sells beach passes only at the Municipal Building, where the business hours coincide with the times most people are working. Waterford also requires passes to be purchased at the town’s Community Center, although it does open the center two Saturdays in June — albeit before most people are thinking about heading to the beaches.

In Stonington, the public beaches are restricted via other means. Both Sandy Point and DuBois beaches are overseen by the Stonington Community Center. Sandy Point is restricted to use by those who own boats because of its offshore location. Earlier this season, the community center fielded numerous complaints when it began requiring those seeking DuBois Beach passes to also purchase COMO memberships for a total cost of $200. Information on the COMO website, however, shows non-member family passes to DuBois Beach now for sale for $125.

When it comes to shoreline access in Connecticut, the message too often is clearly "If we can’t keep non-residents out, we’d at least like to severely restrict how many of them we allow." It’s been nearly 20 years since the state’s Supreme Court ruling. It’s time local officials find better ways to ensure the spirit of this ruling is carried out. 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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