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Who are the gatekeepers? Officials talk capacity limits at Miami Beach

Old Lyme — As interested parties await the verdict in a state Appellate Court case that could determine the beachgoing fate of the "unorganized public" in Old Lyme, some residents are worried that access to the beach is being further eroded.

A capacity limit of roughly 600 people is in place at Sound View Beach and the private but publicly accessible Miami Beach, according to First Selectman Tim Griswold — which amounts to 500 people on Miami Beach and 100 on the town's Sound View portions. He said the limit is about the same as the one put in place last summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though he acknowledged that the health and safety issues directly related to the pandemic have "subsided."

Concerns also have been raised about locks on what is known as Gate B11, which officials agree is a public access point, and about a locked gate that has been erected by the Miami Beach Association on the private Pond Road just before Gate B11 coming from Hartford Avenue.

The stretch of Miami Beach subject to the court case is adjacent to Sound View Beach and has been considered public since the 1880s, when developer Henry Hilliard deeded what was then referred to as Long Island Avenue to the "unorganized general public." Members of the Miami Beach Association who consider it their private beach have erected fences over the years, only to be told they have to take them down.

A judge in January of last year ordered the fence to come down, but it continues to legally stand while the beach association's appeal to that order is pending. The association may not, however, continue to charge non-Miami Beach members to use its beach, based on a court order.

Griswold at a Board of Selectmen meeting Monday responded to questions about the capacity limits and status of Gate B11 raised by Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal. Griswold said a group consisting of himself, Resident State Trooper Matt Weber, one representative of the Miami Beach Association and one from the Sound View Commission determined that "it would be a wise idea to establish an overall capacity on Miami Beach irrespective of Covid."

Griswold told The Day after the meeting that issues such as fights and sanitation concerns can result when there are too many people on the beach.

"There have been instances where there have been fisticuffs," he said. "You don't want to have it where it's just a bunch of hooligans making trouble and obnoxious stuff. That's separate and distinct from capacity, but if it's unlimited, that's probably not a good answer."

Weber, the resident state trooper, could not be reached Tuesday for more specifics on the beach counts over the past weekend.

Kathleen Tracy, a Sound View resident, brought the initial lawsuit against the association in 2018. This week, she said she's discouraged there's not yet a decision in the appeal but added "justice is a slow arm."

In the interim, she expressed concerns about the capacity limits and the padlocks on Gate B11.

"Last year, we had Covid. After the ruling, there was a whole big change at the beach. They limited how many people could go. And so it seemed like their attempt to keep people off the beach was working," she said. "So this year, even two weeks ago, they were having the same limits."

She said the Gate B11 had been open for generations prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

"That was another way for them to limit the people on the beach," she said.

Miami Beach Association President Mark Mongillo said the 500-person limit was "what the town requested with the agreement of the state trooper because they felt that was all they could control."

Mongillo said the association does not have the money or manpower to handle the number of people that would come on the beach unrestricted.

"We don't feel it should come out of our pockets when the judge allowed the public to come on the beach. Maybe the State of Connecticut should have thought about that," he said. Pointing to a state program that gives everyone free access to state parks through a blanket $10 fee on motor vehicle registrations, he said there's no such funding stream for Miami Beach.

"What are we collecting? We're collecting headaches," he said.

Mongillo also blamed the town for the padlocks on Gate B11, which as of Tuesday still had a sign on it stating the entrance is "temporarily closed per request from the town and resident trooper due to pandemic orders" and directing visitors to the Hartford Avenue entrance.

"We have never, ever denied anyone coming through B11," he said.

According to Mongillo, the gate across Pond Road was put up by the association "for safety reasons."

"The fact that the town allows the public to drive on a private road and takes no responsibility if someone were to get hurt, injured or killed, it all falls on Miami Beach shoulders," Mongillo said.

Griswold told the selectmen Monday that Gate B11 was locked amid the pandemic to limit the number of access points and the town staff required to monitor them.

The first selectman did not know as of Tuesday afternoon that a new gate had been installed across Pond Road.

It is unclear when the gate went up. Mongillo said only that it was erected this year.

Griswold, when asked if zoning permissions were required or in place for the Pond Road gate, said it is a private road and he'd be surprised if it needed a permit.

Zoning Enforcement Officer Dan Bourret was not immediately available to comment.

Griswold said the next step will be to meet again with Mongillo, Sound View Commission Chairman Frank Pappalardo and Resident Trooper Weber to talk about how the capacity limits went this past weekend and how to move forward.

"It was not ordained as a permanent thing," Griswold told the selectmen on Monday. "We wanted to start out conservatively, see how things go. I think last weekend would be a pretty good harbinger of how things would work."

He said the recent hot weather would be a better predictor of crowd size than Memorial Day weekend, which was rainy.

He acknowledged the capacity numbers were initially based on COVID-19 precautions requiring a certain number of feet between families. "With that being relaxed, frankly, the number could be more," he said.

Gate B11 also would be an important area of discussion among the concerned parties, according to Griswold: "Could it be open and under what conditions? What sort of gatekeepers would you need there?"

Pappalardo, the Soundview Commission Chairman, spoke remotely during public comment at the selectmen's meeting to say limited police resources and traffic access issues mean "unrestricted capacity on beaches is really a not-safe situation."  He cited "small altercations" on the beach that have caused problems.

He called for the creation of realistic capacity numbers that will result in a "healthy and safe" atmosphere. He also asked for discussion about Gate B11, which he said has been accessed by Sound View residents for a century and which has been specifically deeded to some.

Griswold, based on the suggestion of selectmen and Pappalardo, agreed to contact the town attorney to see if capacity limits at Miami Beach are legal.

Mongillo on Tuesday said he wants Griswold to convene the meeting "ASAP."

"From my understanding, some Sound View Beach members protested and because of their protests is why we're at the table again. They have a personal agenda and they're not looking out for the welfare of the entire community," Mongillo said.

Meanwhile, Tracy said she's hopeful the issue of capacity limits and gates can be resolved quickly, without the need for more litigation. And she remains confident the courts will once again come out in favor of public access when the pending appeal is finally decided.

"I still believe the law is on the side of the people, and I believe that's the side that I'm on," she said.

e.regan@theday.com

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