Old Saybrook Protesters Dispute Homeowner’s Claim to Beach
On July 9, protesters from Old Saybrook and elsewhere, working through Connecticut Coastal Public Access Defense, sat on the beach behind a fence they, the town, and Department of Energy & Environmental Protection have said is illegal. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
This July 9 photo shows that one definition of the high tide line—presence of a prominent wrack line, debris line, or water mark—rests against the seawall, not the fenceline. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
The beach fence in place at 99 Plum Bank Road also encroaches on town property, according to the town of Old Saybrook. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
The owner of a house adjacent to Town Beach in Old Saybrook has been directed to move and/or remove a fence from the beach by both the first selectman and the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), but some beachgoers are doubtful the issue will be resolved so readily and have taken to a series of sit-in protests on public land behind the fence.
Several beachgoers have said that hostility on the part of the home's summer residents toward anyone setting foot on the beach in front of the property has gone on for decades. The homeowners, at different times, have claimed rights to anywhere from 50 to 100 feet of the beach, measured from the seawall below the house toward Long Island Sound. The owners have even posted signs to this effect, according to beachgoers present at a July 9 protest at the site.
According to town records, the house, at 99 Plum Bank Road, which was built in 1934, was owned by Gwendolyn Proctor since 1975, when she obtained it for $0. Her estate appears to have quit claimed the deed to her daughter, Carol McCurdy, in 2008.
Neither McCurdy nor her husband returned a call for comment at press time.
The DEEP letter, dated July 8 and based on a June 24 inspection of the area, tells McCurdy that she has "installed and/or maintained an unauthorized approximately 50 linear foot long wooden fence along the shoreline of your property."
The letter goes on to say that the fence is "anticipated to be located waterward of the Coastal Jurisdiction Line (CJL) and potentially waterward of Mean High Water (MHW)" and that it blocks public access to Town Beach. The fence appears to have been erected "without authorization required pursuant to the Connecticut General Statutes...section 22a-361," the letter says.
Connecticut law establishes that the state owns submerged lands waterward of the mean high water line, meaning the public owns the land from the water to a "prominent wrack line, debris line, or water mark," according to DEEP information about the public trust on its website.
"In general, if an area is regularly wet by the tides, you are probably safe to assume that it is in the public trust," according to the DEEP website.
In 2012, acknowledging the fluctuation of sea waters and the difficulty of establishing the precise location of jurisdictional lines using the high water mark as a standard, the Connecticut General Assembly changed the designation of state-regulated property to the CJL, which is based on elevation.
The change went into effect on Oct. 12, 2012. CJLs for each municipality along Long Island Sound or bordering a tidal river were determined by the Connecticut Association of Land Surveyors (CALS) with assistance from DEEP. In Old Saybrook, the coastal jurisdiction elevation at Long Island Sound is 2.9 feet and represents the highest reach of the tide.
Based on its letter to McCurdy, DEEP appears to continue to use both standards. The agency directed McCurdy to, by July 30, remove the fence or submit a survey to DEEP that shows that the fence is above the coastal jurisdiction and mean high water lines. If she chooses to remove the fence, photographs must be submitted to DEEP by Aug. 15. A compliance statement must be submitted to DEEP by July 15 that indicates which compliance action McCurdy is planning to take.
First Selectman Carl P. Fortuna, Jr.'s letter, however, dated July 7, states that the fence creates "a hazardous condition and block[s] public access to the water from Town Beach." It also states that the fence extends approximately three feet into town property and asks McCurdy to move, rather than remove, it.
According to Fortuna, the town owns land three feet on either side of the jetty at the north end of the Town Beach. As of the morning of July 9, the date of the second of two protests on the beach in front of the property, one end of the fence abutted the jetty and prevented beachgoers from accessing the "flats," or lower part of the beach.
Videos and photos taken by beachgoers show the tide splashing well beyond the boundary of the fence.
Members of Connecticut Coastal Public Access Defense, a Facebook group, has protested at the site twice, with the most recent action, on July 9, a sit-in inside the area cordoned off by the fence. First to make themselves comfortable on their beach chairs were Saybrook residents Ed and JoAnn Eaccarino.
"I've been concerned about this for years," said Ed Eaccarino. "In fact, maybe two or three years ago, they had a fence along the groin [an erosion mitigation structure], which was illegal."
Eaccarino said his complaints to various town departments as well as to DEEP have been largely ineffective. At one point, he said, DEEP told the homeowners to take the fence down and they complied, but the fence went up again. The current fence is worse because it prevents beachgoers from safely getting to the lower part of the beach without having to walk to the far end of the jetty.
Vicki Taccardi grew up in Old Saybrook and, because of the pandemic, is currently living with her elderly mother in the house where she grew up. The owners have told her to move, even when she's been sitting far forward of the fence, she said.
"It's anywhere near the line of sight of their cottage," Taccardi said. "They've been saying they own 75 feet out and they don't."
Taccardi pointed out the driftwood and other debris from the sea that was strewn just below the seawall, which she said proved that the tide comes right up to the wall.
"So basically the wall is their property and anything below the wall is open land, open water," she said.
And the wall is a hazard, she maintained.
"It impedes access," she said. "My mother, who's sitting in the chair here, cannot go over there [to the lower part of the beach] because she can't get down there...And I myself have trouble. I have to be very careful about getting caught with the tide coming in because then I can't get back up. And I actually got hurt once trying to get up two summers ago."
There were numerous reports of foul language directed at beachgoers by the homeowners. Natasha Simes-Vandersloot provided a video to Zip06.com/Harbor News in which a woman is shouting at her from inside the house. Simes-Vandersloot's children's voices can be heard in the background.
After the woman calls Simes-Vandersloot an unprintable name, one of her children begins to voice a retort: "For your information, my mom—"
"Get the f— out," the woman in the house says to the child.
Simes-Vandersloot's mother, Margaret Murray, said the woman in the video and a man recently forced a disabled man in a chair to move to another part of the beach. Another time, the man ran at a group of children who were digging on the beach. Murray shouted at him, certain he was about to hit them. They were five and six years old, she said.
"[T]here's not a person on the beach who's come down here regularly who hasn't had an altercation or run-in with this family," said Simes-Vandersloot.
Widespread and Far-Ranging
Bart Gullong, who is 72, said he remembers being a child of 10 walking the beach and being yelled at for walking across the flats in front of the
"This situation has existed since they owned the house and the nature of the family is such is that they're really territorial," Gullong said.
"I live in Cornfield Point and there's a road ending next to me," he continued. "And I maintain that. We have benches for people to sit and look at the water. That's part of the privilege of owning a house on the water. Where you can, you share it."
Gullong said he is considering legal action against the homeowner.
"He's damaging the public by doing this," Gullong said, referring to the presumed husband of Carol McCurdy. "And as a Saybrook resident, he's damaging me. He's preventing me from getting access to public land. He's restricting access to public land. We're considering all our options but probably we'll bring a suit against him for damages."
The issue of public access to the water in Old Saybrook is larger than just one house on Plum Bank Road, however. Signs in Fenwick have been erected to imply that the area is private, although nearly all the roads there are maintained by the town, according to Gullong and Simes-Vandersloot.
Multiple members of the group said that, in the past, Old Saybrook police have been called by and sided with the homeowner, asking beachgoers to leave the property. It is only recently that the police have reversed position, they said.
Chief of Police Michael A. Spera disputed this, suggesting that the protesters made this claim for the purposes of attracting media attention.
"In fact, we enforced the law the way it is supposed to be enforced," Spera said, saying that he supports the right of people to access the beach.
"The claim that the police have been wrongfully enforcing the law is just a complete mistruth," he said. "I have no record of [Old Saybrook police] kicking people off the beach."
Spera sent Zip06.com/Harbor News several police reports from this year. One was in response to a July 2 complaint by Megan McCurdy that a group of beachgoers had crossed the fence onto the family's private property. July 2 was the date of the Facebook group's first protest.
Patrolman Andrea Tourjee wrote in the report, "It was determined that the people on the beach were beyond the high tide line and that they could be there without any problems. McCurdy thanked us for responding and stated she would attempt to work with the town zoning to establish their property lines."
Fortuna made a brief appearance at the protest on July 9.
"This is town property," he said, indicating some stakes in addition to the fence. "Three foot off the pier. Some of this is definitely encroaching."
Mr. McCurdy had visited the Parks & Recreation office the previous day and left his number, Fortuna said. Fortuna planned to call him.
"I'm going to tell him to rectify the fence situation here...We're going to ask him to take care of the situation," Fortuna said.
McCurdy reportedly told Parks & Rec staff that he has a recent survey that proves that the beach in front of the house is part of his family's property.
"But it doesn't matter," Fortuna said. "The high tide mark has moved. It's unfortunate but that's the case."