Judge: Old Lyme beach fence must come down

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Old Lyme — Miami Beach Association, tear down that fence.

New London Superior Court Judge Kimberly A. Knox, ruling in favor of residents of neighboring Sound View Beach, ordered the Miami Beach Association on Wednesday to take down a black chain-link fence it had erected at the end of the 2016 beach season and to stop charging people a "clean beach fee" to sit on the 800-foot stretch of sand.

The stretch of beach in question 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.

In a 17-page memorandum of decision, Knox ruled that the association is prohibited, "now and hereinafter," from maintaining or establishing any other fence or boundary, and from charging fees and issuing permits for the use of the beach. The judge wrote that the plaintiff is entitled to recover costs expended for the legal action.

Knox, who had heard testimony from both sides at a trial in July 2019, wrote that nothing has changed since 1953, when a judge heard the same issue and issued an injunction prohibiting fences and making the entire length of Sound View and Miami beaches open to the public. Miami Beach members had erected a fence in that case also, and Knox said the only distinction between the 1953 and current action is the association's "recent additional restriction on access by imposition of fees."

"I think it's the right decision," said attorney William E. McCoy, who had represented plaintiff Kathleen Tracy, a retired school principal who owns a cottage on Hartford Avenue in Sound View Beach. 

Tracy had testified at the trial that the fence was immoral, unwelcoming and un-beach-like, and that she had been accosted by a Miami Beach Association security guard and told to leave while straddling Sound View and Miami Beach at the "watermark." All beaches are open to the public below the mean high-tide mark.

Tracy had testified that "every generation has to be taught" that no fence is allowed.

Attorney Kenneth R. Slater Jr., who had represented the Miami Beach Association, could not be reached to comment.

Beach association members had testified at the trial that members of the public were littering and acting rudely, swearing, smoking marijuana and drinking on the beach, urinating in homeowners' outdoor shower stalls and having sex on the beach. They contended it was a privilege and not a right to set up a blanket and sit on the beach as a beach association nonmember.

Old Lyme First Selectman Timothy Griswold, who was not in office when the latest fence was erected, recalled two instances when the town stepped in and removed fences erected by the Miami Beach Association. In the current case, the town did not get involved.

"I guess in one respect it's consistent with the way it's been," Griswold said of the ruling. He said the beach association likely would appeal, having gone this far to defend its clean beach program.

"I think the fence has probably contributed to a calmer environment because people have to pay to use the beach," he said. "Inasmuch as it's not a town property, we're somewhat of a bystander as to what they do."

Griswold said the decision would have a financial consequence for the town, which pays for security and cleaning costs for the public beach area at Sound View. He also wondered whether the Miami Beach Association would be allowed to keep the fees it already had collected.

"I don't know that it would be appropriate for the town to take a side in this thing," he said. "You let the court decide. That's what it's for."

Across the region in Groton, the public won another beach access battle recently when the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection ordered the Shenecossett Beach Club to remove a portion of fence it had installed along a stone jetty and a sign that said "Shenecossett Beach Co, Inc. Members only."

k.florin@theday.com

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