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    Sunday, August 14, 2022

    Mystic YMCA branch closes Williams Beach to public on weekdays

    Mystic — The Ocean Community YMCA has closed Williams Beach, located behind its Naik Family Branch at 1 Harry Austin Drive, to the public on summer weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

    On Tuesday a rope with multicolored flags cordoned off the beach with signs that read "No public beach access during Camp Cove 8-4" and "Beach closed to the public." The closure will be in place through Aug. 26.

    YMCA President and CEO Maureen Fitzgerald explained Tuesday that since the COVID-19 pandemic, the beach and its calm, shallow water has become more popular while the number of children attending its summer camp each day has swelled to almost 200. 

    "We're in the business of keeping children safe," she said, "and best practice is to not have day campers mixing with the public."

    She stressed the beach remains open to the public after 4 p.m. weekdays and on weekends. The YMCA has never charged a fee to use the beach.

    Meanwhile, Stonington First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said Tuesday various offices in Town Hall have been receiving calls from residents upset about the closure and asking if the town owns the beach along the Mystic River. She said Fitzgerald met with her two weeks ago before the YMCA announced the partial closure.

    She said town officials researched records and reaffirmed the beach area is private property owned by the YMCA. 

    "Some people understand and other people are borderline outraged," Chesebrough said. "We told them they (the YMCA) are within their legal right to do this."

    Chesebrough said she understands the YMCA's desire to keep campers safe.

    "They have always tried to be a good neighbor and let people use the beach," she said, adding the beach will remain open to the public at other times during the summer.

    Such closures are not unusual in town. The town's Recreation Department closes off the playground behind the high school to the public when its summer camp is in session on weekdays.

    With COVID-19 limiting capacity at beaches the past two years, Fitzgerald said people began to discover Williams Beach. That resulted in people leaving behind trash, which the YMCA had to clean up. The YMCA also had to install portable toilets for people to use.

    Fitzgerald said the YMCA is monitoring the situation and reserves the right to close the beach completely. In addition, she said membership is rebounding from the pandemic and if parking is needed for YMCA members, that could impact beach parking for nonmembers. 

    Fitzgerald said the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has listed the beach as a public access point to the water on maps it distributes to the public, but Chesebrough said that public access was discussed but never made official by the Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission. Fitzgerald said she has discussed the issue with DEEP and it has agreed the YMCA can take down the public access sign at the beach and remove the designation from its maps. 

    Despite having miles of coastline, the town only has one other beach that is accessible to the public. Dubois Beach, on Stonington Point in the borough, is owned by the Village Improvement Association and run by the Stonington Community Center. During the summer the community center charges a $10-per-person daily fee, with those under 18 free, to access the beach. Annual passes cost $100 for an individual and $125 for a family.

    j.wojtas@theday.com

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