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Open beaches to all, it's the law

It shouldn’t take an executive order to enforce existing law. But it might take a strong reminder from state leaders.

Faced with requirements to encourage social distancing at their town beaches, several towns in our area are imposing resident-only policies this summer, including East Lyme, Waterford and the City of Groton at its Eastern Point Beach on weekends and holidays.

It makes sense, arguably. If only a limited number of people can be allowed on a beach, shouldn’t town residents — and taxpayers — get priority and even exclusivity?

No, they should not, because that approach violates the Connecticut Constitution. That is what the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2001. Municipalities could charge non-residents higher fees, but not deny them access, the justices ruled.

A pandemic and the need for social distancing doesn’t change that.

These beaches are public. At some point, to varying degrees, they have all benefitted from state and federal programs supported by the tax dollars of nonresidents.

Perhaps, as we suggested in a prior editorial, town officials could come up with other, constitutional, approaches to limit attendance that treat all equally. Vehicles with license plates that end with odd numbers or letters A through M could park on Saturdays, even numbers and letters N through Z on Sundays, as one example. Flip the day orientation on alternate weekends.

Coastal communities with town beaches tend to be more affluent communities. Less affluent communities have been hit harder by the pandemic. Let us not exacerbate that reality by making beach access another pandemic inequality.

Gov. Ned Lamont should tell coastal communities to follow the law. State Attorney General William Tong should likewise make a statement and reference the 2001 state Supreme Court ruling in letters sent to local town officials with municipal beaches.

The courts, their dockets backed up by the pandemic-caused shutdown, should not have to waste time and resources relitigating settled law.

We urge local town officials to reconsider their restrictions on out-of-town residents and explore other methods to prevent crowding at their beaches this summer.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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