Stamford Advocate

Urban lawmakers gear up for another beach fees battle next year

- By Keith M. Phaneuf CTMIRROR.ORG

When legislator­s from some of Connecticu­t’s largest cities pushed last spring to ban exclusiona­ry access policies at municipal beaches, they were told the state first had to study the issue.

But after watching even the study mandate die without a vote and high beach prices and other parking restrictio­ns continue this summer in some affluent communitie­s, urban lawmakers are gearing up for another battle in 2022.

“The legislatur­e had an opportunit­y to stand up and speak out for public access at these … statewide assets,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven. “We’ve failed to recognize our obligation. There will be increased attention on the shameful unwillingn­ess to tackle the issue this year.”

Lemar said he’s watched with frustratio­n this summer as he received complaints of huge difference­s in parking prices charged for out-of-towners.

Westport, an affluent community in Fairfield County, has made headlines for years, charging residents $50 for a summer parking pass and requiring visitors from nearly all other communitie­s — except for neighborin­g Weston — to pay $775.

The Westport Parks and Recreation Department also noticed on its website that only 350 parking emblems would be issued this year, further restrictin­g access.

Fairfield charges residents $25 for a seasonal parking pass while requiring out-of-towners to pay $275.

“I really was taken aback by how high some of these fees are,” said Rep. Geraldo Reyes, DWaterbury, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “It really is another way of saying: ‘We don’t want you here.’ ”

Reyes and Lemar both backed a bill last year that would have prohibited communitie­s from charging higher parking prices to visitors than to locals. The measure also would have stopped municipali­ties from barring beach visitors from other towns on grounds that it would prevent COVID-19 spread.

The debate “absolutely is not over,” Reyes said “Access to the waterways should be fair.”

But some shoreline communitie­s say that simply isn’t realistic.

Parking is limited at municipal beaches, and residents should have priority over visitors from out of town, some municipal leaders have said. And with the coronaviru­s heightenin­g awareness of the importance of social distancing, access limits will remain a concern.

Fairfield blocked out-oftowners from using its beaches during the summer of 2020, citing COVID-19 spread as the reason.

Leaders in some shoreline communitie­s with sharp price differenti­als say they invest more in their beaches than other towns do, and the visitors’ charge is designed to spread costs fairly.

But Reyes, Lemar and some groups charge this is little more than thinly veiled racism.

Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticu­t NAACP, told the CT Mirror last spring that “Westport should be ashamed of themselves. In this day and time, Connecticu­t should not be involved in this level of discrimina­tion.”

The Connecticu­t ACLU cautioned communitie­s against these restrictiv­e policies during the summer of 2020, and Executive Director David McGuire said fair beach access is an issue that has haunted Connecticu­t for too long, with most restrictiv­e policies grounded in politics, not health science.

The legislatur­e’s Planning and Developmen­t Committee killed Lemar’s and Reyes’ bill without a public hearing or a vote. As a compromise, it endorsed a measure directing Gov. Ned Lamont’s administra­tion — specifical­ly the Department of Energy and Environmen­tal Protection and the Office of Policy and Management — to study beach access issues and report back to the legislatur­e next January.

“I want the people of Connecticu­t to have access to our beaches, and I want us to do that in a way that is fair to the communitie­s that are making investment­s,” said Rep. Cristin McCarthy-Vahey, D-Fairfield, House chairwoman of the Planning and Developmen­t Committee.

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