DEEP investigating if Shenecossett Beach Club fence hinders public access to coastline

Groton — A stone jetty has stood for decades along the eastern end of the Shenecossett Beach Club, next to a small sandy area on the University of Connecticut-Avery Point campus.

Manchester resident Mark Connors and his family visited the campus for years and often crossed from the campus beach over the stone breakwater to walk along the shoreline of Shennecossett Beach. Though the beach is private, beaches are open to the public below the mean high-water mark under the public trust doctrine, he said.

Connors said he was surprised when he visited in the spring and found a fence extending waterward along the stone jetty and a sign that said "Shenecossett Beach Co. Inc. Members Only."

After he researched and contacted the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the agency now is looking into whether the fence and sign extend beyond the mean high-water mark and therefore interferes with public access.

Karen Parks, vice president of the beach club, officially called the Shenecossett Beach Co., said the club extended the fence and installed the sign for safety purposes after two people were hurt climbing on the rocks the year before. When the beach is open, a lifeguard and manager can enforce the club's rules prohibiting members from climbing on the rocks, but the club was concerned about keeping people from the rocks when the beach is closed.

"The intention wasn't to keep people off the beach, the intention was to keep people off the rocks," Parks said, adding that the rocks are typically slightly slippery and could be a liability.

Brian Golembiewski, supervising environmental analyst at DEEP, said he did a site inspection and looked at files, aerial photos and tide charts. DEEP defines the mean high-water mark as "the average of high tides over a defined period, and its elevation can be obtained from standard references, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tidal Flood Profile charts." He said DEEP doesn't want the public to get the wrong impression that they can't access the beach.

In addition, Golembiewski said DEEP is trying to determine if the work falls into its jurisdictional review area and would have required a permit.

If a violation is found, DEEP then would decide on a potential enforcement action, which could entail moving the sign or removing the fence or part of the fence, he said.

Parks said the club's contractor confirmed a permit wasn't needed and she believes everything was done according to the guidelines. She said the club, which was established in 1901, knows and respects that the public has a right to access the shoreline below the mean high-water mark.

"We believe that we are within where it should be, but if it's not, we will correct it," Parks said. "We have no intention of violating that."

The Shenecossett Beach Club received a permit in 1982 to expand an existing jetty structure, which the club believes dated back to when the Coast Guard used what is now the UConn Avery Point campus area, to prevent sand erosion, she said. After a hurricane, the beach club in 2013 was granted a permit to repair the jetty.

Connors said he also voiced concerns to DEEP that there is no pathway for people to walk over the stone breakwater.

Golembiewski said DEEP has required in the past some structures that extend into the water to provide reasonable means of access below the mean high-water line, such as lowering a section or adding stairs, so he said DEEP is considering that as part of a potential enforcement action.  

Stephanie Reitz, spokesperson and manager of media relations for the University of Connecticut, said the university has not been involved in erecting or maintaining the fence.

"Out of respect for the DEEP and its review process, we don't expect to participate in the discussions unless DEEP specifically requests our input," she said.

Connors said he thinks this situation is particularly important because UConn Avery Point has marine studies students. He also is requesting that the university install an informational kiosk or sign to educate people about the public trust doctrine.

Reitz said a decision hasn't been made on the signage request.

Connors said that while the public trust doctrine says people have the right to the land waterward of the mean high-water mark, they still have to legally get to that point, meaning they can't cross private property to get onto the public part of a beach. He said public access points like the beach at Avery Point are important, especially since there are relatively few such access points in Connecticut, considering the length of its shoreline.

Connors said he's trying to enlighten people that the coastline below the mean high-water mark is a public resource. "It's a resource that they have available to them, and they should be aware that this beach access is available to them," he said.

Golembiewski said DEEP gets a decent number of complaints regarding fences on beaches, and it's a constant conflict the department sees between private property owners and the public.

"It's common to have that conflict, and our job is we don't want any fences that extend beyond mean high water," he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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