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Miami Beach capacity limits lifted as Appellate Court decision looms

Old Lyme — A move to restrict the number of people allowed at Miami Beach has been reversed by the first selectman amid a legal battle over the public's unfettered access to the beach.

First Selectman Tim Griswold told his two fellow selectmen on Monday that capacity limits at Sound View and Miami beaches have been pulled back on the advice of the town attorney.

Griswold said he was told by Town Attorney John A. Collins III of Suisman Shapiro that any restriction on public access to the beach could be construed as a violation of an existing court order. The advice was spurred when Collins was contacted by the plaintiff's attorney in the ongoing case, according to Griswold.

The reversal of the capacity limit comes after Griswold said earlier this month that capacity limits similar to last year's COVID-related restrictions, which capped attendance at about 600 people between Sound View and Miami beaches, would carry through this season.

Griswold said the decision to extend the capacity limits for safety reasons was reached in consultation with Resident State Trooper Matthew Weber and representatives from Miami Beach Association and Sound View Commission. The group thought it was "a wise idea to establish an overall capacity on Miami Beach irrespective of COVID," according to Griswold.

Sound View is a town-owned beach, while the adjacent Miami Beach has been considered public since developer Henry Hilliard deeded what was then referred to as Long Island Avenue to the "unorganized general public" in the 1880s. 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 down the fences.

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

Kathleen Tracy, a Sound View resident, brought the initial lawsuit against the association in 2018. Earlier this month, she described the capacity limits as another way to keep people off the beach.

Collins, the town attorney, said Tuesday he could not elaborate on what he told Griswold until the first selectman gives permission for the lawyer to divulge that information. There was no response by press time.

Griswold on Monday told The Day that not being able to enforce a capacity limit on the beach opens the town to liability. He said he wants to know who is going to be responsible if someone gets hurt or killed because the beach is too crowded.

He said he is seeking indemnification from the state attorney general "or something" if the legal determination is that capacity limits — like fences and fees — cannot stand.

"If you had an anthill there and somebody had a heart attack and you couldn't get medics down there, who's going to be unhappy with that?" he asked.

Frank Pappalardo, chairman of the Sound View Beach Commission, was the commission's representative at the discussions referenced by Griswold. Pappalardo in a Tuesday phone call reiterated the first selectman's argument about safety.

"You have a medical emergency or some incident that occurs and you can't get personnel to that incident, who's responsible? We need to know who to point the finger at," Pappalardo said.

He said he is continuing to work with the selectmen and Miami Beach Association "to try to come up with a reasonable and recognizable — and most of all, safe — limit to how many people we can put on the beach."

Selectman Mary Jo Nosal told The Day in a Tuesday phone call that neither the town attorney's input nor the resulting conversations between Griswold, Pappalardo and the Miami Beach Association had been shared with the three-member Board of Selectmen prior to Monday's selectmen's meeting.

Miami Beach Association President Mark Mongillo did not return a call for comment.

Tracy, the plaintiff in the court case, said the capacity limits are part of an ongoing problem of people trying to prevent the public from going to the beach — "whether they do it with fences or do it with COVID (restrictions)."

But she said it was not capacity restrictions that caused her attorney to reach out to the town attorney. She cited the padlock on a gate at the entrance known as B11, which officials agree is a public access point, as the direct impetus for the call.

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

The gate has since been reopened.

Tracy questioned why there is a continuing effort to restrict access to the public beach: "Can you just give up on that and let people go to the beach and enjoy the beach and move on?"

e.regan@theday.com

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