Monday, September 28, 2020

Local News

New Beach Policy Banning Non-Residents Raises Legality, Equity Questions

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The gate at the Surf Club this past weekend indicating that all beachgoers would have their IDs checked to ensure they were residents, though exceptions and some selective enforcement appeared to create inconsistencies. Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source

The gate at the Surf Club this past weekend indicating that all beachgoers would have their IDs checked to ensure they were residents, though exceptions and some selective enforcement appeared to create inconsistencies. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source | Buy This Photo)

In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias, First Selectman Peggy Lyons signed an executive order that tightening beach restrictions further than earlier, pandemic-related restrictions, entirely banning all access by non-residents for one week and checking ID for those attempting to walk on.

The new restrictions, which will expire after next Sunday, Aug. 16, are in anticipation of “likely...an even greater demand for beach access this weekend” following the tropical storm, according to a release by Lyons.

The town had previously limited parking access for non-residents to weekdays, Monday through Thursday, though there had been no attempts made to ensure walk-ons were Madison residents.

Acceptable forms of identification at the gate include driver’s license, student ID, tax bill, lease agreement, or locally addressed mail, according to the Aug. 7 release from Lyons. The new restrictions went into effect the same day, though their enforcement appeared to be subjective and somewhat inconsistent, at least over the weekend.

“I realize this may create an inconvenience for residents as they visit our beach facilities, but this temporary measure is necessary to protect the public’s health and safety in these challenging times while so many are without power,” Lyons wrote.

In response to the pandemic and an increased demand for beach access, Madison has continued to add more strictures to beaches this season, also adding capacity limitations and temporarily closing beaches once they become too crowded.

State Representative Noreen Kokoruda (R-101) lauded work by the beach staff and pointed out that there is no real precedent for the current circumstances, with a global pandemic and the aftermath of a historically damaging storm weighing on the state simultaneously.

Kokoruda served many years on the Beach & Recreation Commission in Madison and said she has been in touch with Lyons about beach safety and policy. She expressed concerns about some of the restrictions running afoul of state laws, while saying that many factors that contribute to crowding issues at beaches are things outside the control of town officials, particularly policies at neighboring Hammonasset Beach State Park.

“It seems to me it’s against what the law is. I know it’s a problem, I don’t have the answer,” Kokoruda said.

She added that likely the question wouldn’t be resolved until after the pandemic, and could end up in the courts.

Lyons and Beach & Recreation Director Scot Erskine did not respond to an emailed question from The Source about the legality of the policy, and whether it had been reviewed by Town Attorney Floyd Dugas.

The State Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that towns cannot prevent non-residents from accessing their beaches, citing the First Amendment.

Checking ID for beach walk-ons is “a first in history,” Kokoruda said, though she said one underlying problem—untenable crowds—could be greatly helped if Hammonasset began allowing more people to access their much larger beach.

Many shoreline towns have restricted their beaches in various ways during the pandemic, with Guilford reducing its capacity significantly and Westbrook allowing only residents to use beach parking. According to Kokoruda, though, Madison “went out of its way” over the years to reject state money for the beaches in order to maintain local control of them.

A Heated Topic

Affluent suburban towns disallowing or discouraging use by non-residents has a fraught history in Connecticut, with many asserting that these policies contribute to racial and economic inequities.

In the late 1970s, activists led a movement to undo restrictive policies along Connecticut beaches, particularly incensed by the deaths of a handful of young Black kids who drowned in unsupervised swimming areas during sweltering summer heat.

Kokoruda said she was in graduate school at Southern Connecticut State University during that time, and that Madison had been used explicitly in one of her classes as an example of these restrictive policies.

Lyons said via email that while “Madison prides itself on being a welcoming community,” the combination of power outages and pandemic made the executive order necessary “to ensure our residents would have adequate access to their community facilities during a very stressful time.”

Overall, Kokoruda said she thought this summer that Beach & Recreation staff has worked hard to maintain safety and provide people with an escape from the pandemic, and officials have done a good job at maintaining a full staffing of life guards and gate guards, along with adding a new supervisor position.

But especially during the pandemic, Kokoruda said she thought Hammonassett needed to shoulder more of the load as people from all around the state look to beat the heat and escape the monotony of the pandemic.

“The fact is, that state park should be open to everybody,” she said. “That stretch of Hammonasset is bigger than Madison, Guilford, [and] Branford put together.”

Lyons expressed the same sentiment, saying that the significant limitations placed on parking at Hammonasset “has created a public safety issue on our local roads, and a public health hazard at our beaches due to overcrowding.”

Kokoruda said she also thought that other towns and cities like Hartford could find ways to create access to swimming and recreation, and teach kids about water safety, though again, state parks like Hammonasset should be the first destination for people not living on the shoreline.

Enforcement and Equity

This weekend, people were observed entering the beach without being confronted, or offering half-hearted assurances that they lived in Madison. Others said they were never asked for any form of identification, or weren’t aware of the new policies.

At the same time, a gate guard shouted to members of a Hispanic family who were still in the process of unpacking their car near West Wharf to ask if they were Madison residents and warn them about the new policy.

One member of that family, Raoul Alvarez, expressed disappointment and confusion about being turned away. He said his family, including two young children, had driven from their home in Port Chester, New York all the way to Madison to enjoy an afternoon at the beach.

According to Alvarez, the family had been to West Wharf about a month ago and enjoyed it so much they planned to come back. Alvarez said he was not offered an explanation as to why non-residents were not being allowed in or why the guard had addressed him and his family directly, and could not guess at the reason himself.

He said he still would want to visit Madison’s beaches if the policies changed, but planned to try “the next one”—either east toward Clinton, or Hammonasset to the west.

At least one gate guard, who declined to be named, said that there were some exceptions to the policy, with cyclists allowed to pass the gate without being checked. The only signs warning of the new policies were small and plastered on or near the beach gates.

These signs also indicated that “digital” forms of ID would be accepted, though it was not immediately clear what that meant.

A town employee familiar with the new policies was not aware of any training or conversations around racial profiling for the gate guards. Guards were given at least some subjective powers when letting people in, judging whether or not they appeared to be coming onto the beach by carrying sand toys or beach chairs, for example.

The employee said “digital” ID might potentially include a Facebook profile indicating that person lived in Madison, or membership in a Madison Facebook group.

The employee had heard that many residents were hoping for more restrictive policies, though the employee had no reason to believe this was why the executive order had been passed.

Beach & Recreation Supervisor Peter Wood deferred questions about the new policies to Lyons and Erskine. He said that as of around noon on Aug. 9, a Sunday, the beaches had not been particularly busy, and had never reached capacity the previous two days.

Staff at the Surf Club patrol the outer edges of the park to the north and west, according to Wood, though he said he wasn’t concerned about people sneaking in that way, particularly with parking near Lowry Field closed on weekends.

One woman relaxing at the Surf Club this past weekend, who also declined to give her name due to the potential controversy, said she generally supported disallowing non-residents from the beach. She said she felt Madison taxpayers had more of a right to their beaches as a resource, and worried that at a certain point, especially during a pandemic, the beaches would become “overrun, run-down” if non-residents were allowed in unrestricted.

“Fortunately or unfortunately,” the policy “excludes some people,” the woman said, but she hoped town officials found a way “to work within it” to balance the rights of residents and non-residents.

No one had checked her ID that day, the woman said, and her daughter had told her that guards rarely do, something she was “okay with.”

Lyons told The Source via email that the town would “reevaluate” the policy on Aug. 17 when it expires.


Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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