Trial over Old Lyme beach fence begins

Members of the Miami Beach Association in Old Lyme have gone through effort and expense to ensure that the “unorganized general public” stops disrespecting and littering on “their” 800-foot-long beach.

Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knox soon will decide whether the beach association’s Clean Beach Pass Program is legal.

At trial Wednesday in New London Superior Court, Knox heard testimony from neighboring Sound View Beach residents who contend that a black, chain link fence and a guard shack erected at the end of the 2016 summer season between the public Sound View Beach and Miami Beach, as well as a fee program implemented in 2017, are not legal.

Attorney William E. McCoy argued on their behalf that the association’s Clean Beach Pass Program goes against developer Henry Hilliard’s intention when he deeded the beach to "the unorganized general public" in the 1880s and against a 1953 court injunction prohibiting fences and making the entire length of Sound View and Miami beaches open to the public.

“This big, black, chain-link fence is so unfriendly. It’s so unbeach like,” said Kathleen Tracy, the plaintiff suing the Miami Beach Association.

During her testimony the retired middle school principal, who has a seasonal home on Hartford Avenue, noted that fences had been erected by Miami Beach four times since 1953 and that “every generation has to be taught” that no fence is allowed.

Though all beaches are open to the public below the mean high-tide mark, Tracy also testified that a Miami Beach Association security guard “accosted” her while she was straddling Sound View and Miami Beach at the “watermark” and told her to leave.

“I don’t come to the beach to have experiences like that,” Tracy said.

She considers the fence to be “an injustice and immoral,” as well as “unwelcoming.”

Attorney Kenneth R. Slater Jr. of the Halloran Sage law firm, representing the Miami Beach Association members, argued that they own their beach and that the 1953 decision only allows the public the right to use the beach to get from “Point A to Point B,” meaning from the top of Miami Beach, which they said is known as Long Island Avenue, to the mean hightide mark. He maintained that it is a privilege and not a right to set up a blanket and sit on the beach as a beach association nonmember.

“Dirty diapers, dog feces, needles, you name it, that was all left on the beach. We needed a way to clean it, so we implemented the ‘Clean Beach Fee,’” said Mark Mongillo, president of the association. “The program was to ensure a safe, healthy and family-friendly beach.”

Security guards man the entrances to the beach and demand a $10-per-person "clean beach" fee for nonmembers who want to pay to lay their towels on the sand. Mongillo said the fee is $5 for children aged 10 to 17 and access is free for children under 10.

Those who pay the fee receive a wrist band and a plastic bag for their garbage.

Residents of Old Lyme who show their drivers’ license or a tax bill are not required to pay the fee, Mongillo said, while residents of neighboring Sound View Beach are allowed to pay $5 for a beach pass good for five years, as a way for easy access. 

Mongillo testified that the beach association has lost money each year since implementing the Clean Beach Pass Program.

In 2017, the association hired a management company to run the program for $30,000. Association Treasurer Terri DeVito testified that the association began managing the beach itself in 2018 for $23,610. The association receives close to $20,000 from the town to help pay for beach cleaning and security, as well as other expenses.

All the town’s private beach associations receive money from the town annually.

Mongillo, as well as other Miami Beach Association members testifying, said that since the Clean Beach Pass Program was implemented, they have seen “vast improvements” along the Miami Beach strip, stating that there has been less garbage, less noise and fewer disrespectful people.

Mongillo testified that in 2016, the association amended its original charter granted by the legislature in 1949 to extend its southern boundary to include the entire beach. He said the state passed that amendment.

But under cross-examination by McCoy, Mongillo admitted that the revised charter had merely been filed with the secretary of the state.

“We went with home rule. We followed the home rule process,” Mongillo said.

He testified that he did not believe Tracy was accosted by a beach association security guard.

Sandra Manafort, who owns a beach-front home on Miami Beach, testified that prior to the fence being erected, she had seen beachgoers acting rudely, swearing, smoking marijuana and drinking on the beach, urinating in homeowners’ outdoor shower stalls and having sex on the beach.

She said beachgoers took furniture off her patio, and one day she arrived to find five young adults sitting on her patio eating lunch.

“Quite a few of the oceanfront homeowners were having similar experiences,” Manafort said.

The beach association members contend that the problem had worsened in the five years before they erected the fence.

When they complained to police about the littering, they said police told them they couldn’t take time to ticket offenders, stating that each offense requires paperwork taking them away from more serious matters.

Chris Calvanese, also a beachfront property owner, said every morning the beach “looked like a landfill.” He said his family was considering moving back to Westbrook until the beach association implemented the Clean Beach Pass Program.

Recently, the adjacent beachfront bar Kokomo’s erected a fence of its own that Sound View concedes is legal because Kokomo’s is private property. The strip of Sound View Beach at Hartford Avenue appeared to shrink even more, as a result.

“The more I’m there, the more I feel like it’s fences, fences, fences. Beaches are supposed to be open and friendly. It’s not,” Tracy said.

Judge Knox asked the lawyers to submit briefs summarizing their cases by Aug. 23. She said she would consider a defense suggestion to view the fence in person.

k.florin@theday.com

m.biekert@theday.com

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