Debate over beach rights heats up in Old Lyme
Old Lyme — For more than 125 years, beachgoers have been vying for space on Sound View Beach, a tiny strip of white sand at the end of Hartford, Portland and Swan avenues.
Developer Henry Hilliard deeded the beach to "the unorganized general public" in the 1880s and, since then, people have arrived in large numbers on sunny summer days.
This summer, Sound View looks especially inviting, with new sidewalks, benches and plantings along the main strip on Hartford Avenue and imported palm trees around the two beachfront bars, The Pavilion and Lenny's on the Beach.
But the hundreds of people who drive to the shore on their days off might not feel as welcome as in the past. After jockeying for one of the limited paid parking spots and passing the scrutiny of youthful beach rangers who monitor the size and contents of their coolers, visitors have been hauling their chairs and beach umbrellas to the waterfront only to learn they will be confined to a small area of the beach unless they pay extra.
The Miami Beach Association, claiming a "significant increase in the inappropriate behavior by persons using the beach in violation of community beach rules and regulations," has erected a fence between its beach and Sound View and instituted what it calls a Clean Beach Pass Program. Security guards man the entrances to the beach and demand a $10 "clean beach" fee for non-members who want to pay to lay their towels on the sand. Those who pay the fee receive a wrist band and a plastic bag for their garbage.
The association built fences in the past that were ruled illegal and torn down, but this time they did their research, according to Mark Mongillo, president of the association. He said the association is trying to restore the beach to a clean, safe and family-oriented place.
"Over the past two or three years, there's been an influx of people who really have no respect for property, have no respect for public decency, and basically have ignored all kinds of requests to behave themselves, to the come to the beach and enjoy it," Mongillo said.
A property owner for 14 years in Miami Beach, Mongillo said, "The beach is our front yard. People need to respect that, to honor that." He said beachgoers have cut through private properties, sat on homeowners' patios and taken their furniture and put it on the beach. Also, he said, beachgoers have had sex on the beach and have left behind everything from pizza boxes to dirty diapers and dog feces.
"Basically Miami Beach has gotten to the point where we need to keep the beach as safe and secure and as clean as possible," he said. "That's the main thing. Miami Beach is a deeded beach and is private property. We own it. We pay taxes on it. We pay insurance on it."
Town residents and those from adjacent beaches can get onto Miami Beach for free if they show proof they pay taxes in Old Lyme. Children under 12 are free and members of the military get a discount.
"You pay $25 for parking, then you have to pay another $10 to get into the beach? That's an expensive day for John Q. Public, and it's illegal as my lawyer reads the law," Sound View resident Kathleen Tracy said by phone last week. According to Tracy, the concrete walkway in front of the homes along Miami Beach is known as "Long Island Avenue," and that land records indicate anything in front of it is public beach.
A retired school principal who owns a house along Hartford Avenue, Tracy said that in her opinion the fence is divisive and needs to come down. She said she has consulted a lawyer and met with others who object. Tracy said she knew what to expect when she purchased her summer home near a public beach.
"I'm OK with a lot of people on the beach," she said. "I'm OK with people being loud. If you don't like this beach, go buy over at Black Point or some of these other beaches that are private. Accept that we are going to have the public here and enjoy. It's a mindset. It's an example of how we're so divided."
No town jurisdiction
The Miami Beach Association's past efforts to divide this particular strip of beach into public and private have failed. In 1953, a Superior Court judge issued an injunction prohibiting a fence and ordering that the entire length of Sound View and Miami beaches remain open as spelled out by Hillard. In 1990 or so, the association put up another fence, and the town promptly removed it.
This time, though, the town is not stepping in, even though it pays the Miami Beach Association a $20,500 stipend per year, more than any other beach community, to clean and maintain the beach. First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said she has spent a lot of time researching the issue since the Miami Beach fence appeared after the end of the 2016 beach season.
"The town doesn't have jurisdiction over what they've built there," Reemsnyder said by phone last week. "I've confirmed that with the town attorney and the Attorney General. I've spoken to DEEP (the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) and the office of Long Island Sound Programs."
She said DEEP looked at the fence, which runs along the width of the beach and ends at what its builders determined was the high tide mark. The area below the high tide mark is considered public on all beaches.
"Somebody came out and looked at the fence and felt it was not below the coastal jurisdiction line," said Reemsnyder. "To me, when you have seaweed on the fence, the water has come above it. I sent DEEP a picture and their response was that it doesn't change their mind. It's still not an encroachment."
Reemsnyder and other town officials have told those who object to the fence that is up to the public to challenge it.
Mongillo said the past efforts by Miami Beach failed because the association attempted to totally restrict access to the beach. That's not the case this time, he said. Anyone can come on the beach if they are willing to pay. Mongillo said the $20,500 stipend from the town only makes up about one third of the amount spent by the association each year to maintain the beach.
He said a meeting has been scheduled with the local residents who object to the fence, but if they want to take legal action, "that's totally up to them."
"We did this after years of research," Mongillo said. "We're speaking to these individuals to find out what it is they're concerned about. We're trying to help out the entire beach community."
Sound View is a place of competing interests. Business owners need people to come, park and spend money. Homeowners and renters often don't want to share their beach vacation with large crowds of people, some of whom can get unruly due to the combination of sunshine and alcohol. On busy days, cars circle throughout the beach streets in search of parking and lately, police have been closing Hartford Avenue temporarily, for about 20 minutes at a time, to let the traffic clear, Reemsnyder said.
"We have 90 feet of beach, about 300 parking spaces and 200 residences," said Frank Pappalardo, chairman of the Sound View Commission and a third-generation property owner on Swan Avenue. "Do the math. It all boils down to too many people and not enough beach. Because we can't expand the beach, we have to limit the people."
Pappalardo said, "The fence has been a heated topic, but with our weekend guests not respecting town property, I understand why Miami Beach chose to do it."
At a commission meeting last week, members talked about a June 11 incident in which police said they arrested two intoxicated teens from Windsor Locks who urinated on a Hartford Avenue property and then assaulted the property owner and his son. They discussed an incident in May in which about two dozen police cruisers from area towns rushed to the beach after a fight broke out and the short-staffed police called for help.
Six town police officers and a resident trooper usually staff the town, but two officers left earlier this year and one is out on disability, according to Reemsnyder. She said the town is hiring two full-time officers, one of whom was slated to start over the weekend and the second in mid-July.
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