New plaintiffs, complaint in lawsuit over fence dividing Old Lyme beaches

Old Lyme — A fence that separates Sound View Beach and Miami Beach, considered divisive, unattractive and illegal by a group of Sound View residents, still stands after two summer seasons.

Sound View is a 100-foot strip of public beach that draws crowds to town on summer weekends and holidays. Until last summer, beachgoers who drove down Hartford Avenue and jockeyed for limited paid parking spots could spread onto the sand of the adjacent Miami Beach.

The Miami Beach Association, citing an increase in inappropriate behavior by beachgoers, including littering and trespassing on the decks of beachfront cottages, erected the fence in the fall of 2016 after the summer crowds receded. The association in the summer of 2017 posted security guards at the entrances to the beach and started charging a $10 "clean beach fee" to those who wanted access.

Four Sound View Beach property owners allege in a civil lawsuit that the Miami Beach Association is interfering with the public's right of access to the beach in direct violation of a 1953 court order and does not have the authority to charge fees to the public for use of the public beach.

"We get it that there are behavior problems here, but two wrongs don't make a right," plaintiff Robert Breen said during an interview at his Swan Avenue cottage Wednesday. "This needs to be adjudicated in court."

Breen, whose family arrived at Sound View in 1895 and has a street named for them, harbors no ill will against his Miami Beach Association neighbors. Miami Beach allows Sound View property owners and tenants access to their claimed strip of sand for a small fee. Breen said he joined the lawsuit recently because he considers Miami Beach part of the public domain and the fence an eyesore.

Sound View cottage owner Kathleen Tracy, a retired high school principal, initiated the lawsuit in August 2017. She was seeking to intervene in a 1953 case in which a Superior Court judge issued an injunction prohibiting Miami Beach representatives from interfering with the rights of the public to "free entry and egress and free unimpeded use and enjoyment" of the entire length and width of both beaches. Judge Thomas E. Troland had ordered the Miami Beach Association members of 65 years ago to remove its fence or pay a fine of $5,000.

Tracy's lawsuit stalled when a judge required her to serve notice on the 31 Miami Beach Association members listed as defendants in the 1950s case or to notify their heirs or successors. 

Her attorney, William E. McCoy of Uncasville, suggested a different approach. Last month, he filed a new lawsuit that names only the Miami Beach Association as the defendant but references the 1953 court order.

Joining Tracy as plaintiffs in the new complaint are Breen and Jerry and Dee Vowles, who own the Carousel Shop, home of Sound View's beloved classic merry-go-round, on Hartford Avenue.

Breen said in an interview Wednesday that most of his Sound View friends paid the $5 for a pass that grants them or tenants of their rental cottages access to sands of Miami Beach. They don't have to sit among the beachgoers who are now funneled onto the tiny Sound View section.

He said the Miami Beach Association should have gone to court to get the 1950s injunction overturned, and that if a court decides against the Sound View plaintiffs, he would accept the ruling.

Breen said the two beachfront bars, The Pavilion and Lenny's on the Beach, own the beach in front of their businesses and that Sound View comprises 100 feet of beach, including 50 feet at the end of Hartford Avenue, 40 feet at the end of Swan Avenue and 10 feet at the end of an alleyway that runs between Hartford and Portland Avenues.

According to the previous court ruling, developer Henry Hilliard deeded the beach to "the unorganized general public" in the 1880s. The Sound View plaintiffs contend that the concrete walkway in front of the homes along Miami Beach is known as "Long Island Avenue," and that land records indicate anything in front of it is public beach.

The town supported the public access argument in the 1990s and removed a fence that the Miami Beach Association had erected between the two beaches but this time has decided to remain neutral.

Mark Mongillo, president of the association, said last summer that the beach association had done its research and would withstand a legal challenge. He said the association is trying to restore the beach to a clean, safe and family-oriented place. The association's attorney, Kenneth R. Slater Jr. of the Halloran & Sage law firm, did not respond this past week to a phone message.

First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said the summer of 2018 was quieter than recent seasons and the town did not receive as many complaints about Sound View. She said the town had an additional police officer on duty most days who was assigned to work at Sound View in addition to the town-employed rangers who help keep order despite their limited authority.

Reemsnyder said she didn't know whether the state's new policy of not charging entry fees at Rocky Neck State Park and other beaches had an impact on the number of beachgoers at Sound View.

"The weather wasn't always great, either," Reemsnyder said. "But, as far as behavior is concerned, I can just say the complaints didn't come in like they did in the past."

k.florin@theday.com

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