Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Local News

Despite Park Manager Controversy, Fenwick to Hire a Constable

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A sign on Sequassen Avenue in the Borough of Fenwick is marked private, though the actual private portion of the road lays a substantial distance beyond the sign. Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News

A sign on Sequassen Avenue in the Borough of Fenwick is marked private, though the actual private portion of the road lays a substantial distance beyond the sign. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

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A sign on Sequassen Avenue in the Borough of Fenwick is marked private, though the actual private portion of the road lays a substantial distance beyond the sign. Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News

A sign on Sequassen Avenue in the Borough of Fenwick is marked private, though the actual private portion of the road lays a substantial distance beyond the sign. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

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A “Private, No Tresspasing” on Mohegan Avenue in the Borough of Fenwick. Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News

A “Private, No Tresspasing” on Mohegan Avenue in the Borough of Fenwick. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

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Fenwick Beach is open by permit only; no parking is available. Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News

Fenwick Beach is open by permit only; no parking is available. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

It was late July when Rhonda Tyler and her husband, David Skrainski, sat their nearly two-year old granddaughter in a little red wagon and walked from their home near Saybrook Point to the Borough of Fenwick. The walk there, about 1 ½ miles, was one they’ve taken many times during the 12 years they’ve lived in Old Saybrook.

They strolled down the paved part of Sequassen Road and, before the road divided into private driveways, took a path to their left that leads through wild grass to a sandy area not far from Yacht Club Point.

They had been there a little while, their granddaughter walking barefoot on chubby legs across the sand past bits of driftwood, when a man appeared, just above them. He stood there, watching them silently, and then announced that they were trespassing.

Tyler tried to engage him in conversation.

“Isn’t this below the high tide line?” she asked.

He didn’t answer, she said.

“He’s a big man. He’s quite intimidating,” she said. “The bottom line, it was uncomfortable. We left.”

Tyler still doesn’t know who the man was or what his reasons were for asking them to leave.

Hiring a Constable

Fenwick was established by a Special Act of the Connecticut Legislature in 1899, transforming the section of Old Saybrook known as New Saybrook into “a body politic and corporate within said Town of Old Saybrook, by the name of the Borough of Fenwick.”

That special act, along with subsequent ones adding and amending the ones before them, and together with the borough’s ordinances, lay out the boundaries, government structure, and rights, duties, and powers of residents and government officials, as well as prohibitions against trespassing.

If minutes from meetings of Fenwick’s warden and Board of Burgesses are any indication, uninvited visitors to the borough continues to be a pressing issue for residents. On April 29 of this year, Charlie Millar of the borough’s Concerns Committee presented to the warden and burgesses its members’ concerns about beach access—the committee recommended an additional gate be installed to keep non-paying non-residents out—security, traffic, and “control of roads,” which appears to mean limiting or even disallowing outside traffic.

This issue of controlling the roads, according to the meeting minutes, has preoccupied Fenwick residents for decades. Millar reported that the Concerns Committee had hired attorney Mike Zizka, who advised that the burgesses “appoint a constable, which would constitute a police force and the Warden [Newton C. Brainard] would consequently become the traffic authority.” The borough attorney, Campbell Hudson, had agreed, according to Millar.

“Attorney Zizka has advised that there are some legal vulnerabilities but that it is legally defensible,” the minutes read. “Millar added that although there may be technical challenges...realistically, the committee does not think such questions will be raised.

“The aim now is to establish a legal foundation for borough control of the roads, not to aggressively exercise such control,” read the minutes.

While Frank Keeney, a Fenwick burgess as well as the chair of the Old Saybrook Police Commission, argued against hiring a constable, a motion to pursue it passed 4 to 2.

At the May 11 meeting, at which the 2020–’21 budget was discussed, Brainard stated that the borough had the funds to pay a constable for that year but subsequently might require a tax increase. In response to a question, the zoning enforcement officer explained that the budget included “ongoing legal expenses but not those related to a lawsuit,” according to the minutes, and Brainard added that Zizka did not think that “things were going to ‘explode’ anytime soon.”

Later in the meeting, in response to Keeney’s questions about the role of the constable versus the Old Saybrook Police Department (OSPD), Burgess Pam Christensen explained that “Zizka advised that the constable would be the traffic person and enforcer of ordinances,” according to the minutes.

In July, Brainard relayed meeting with Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl P. Fortuna, Jr.—who, he said, had “no problem” with the borough hiring a constable—and OSPD Police Chief Michael A. Spera, who said he wasn’t sure it was legal. At the Aug. 27 meeting, it was announced that the Concern Committee would post the constable position after Labor Day.

Privacy vs. Access

It was in the early 20th century that beach associations began to proliferate along the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. The privatization of property along the shoreline meant that by the late 1960s, “the Department of Interior estimated [that] 97 percent of the...5,912 miles of recreational shoreline” in the Northeastern United States was off-limits to the general public, according to Free the Beach: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline by Andrew W. Kahrl. In Connecticut, at around the same time. only seven miles of the 253-mile shoreline was publicly accessible.

Kahrl’s book relays the history of public access—or lack thereof—in Connecticut and its consequences for those without the means to purchase a home along the coast. While shoreline property was often affordable to middle-class white families, there were explicit prohibitions against selling properties to Black people or to Jews.

Today, 19 years after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled, in Leyden v. Greenwich, that municipalities could not bar non-residents from town beaches, towns instead charge fees for parking. In Fenwick, a pass for a non-resident to spend a day at the beach and use the tennis courts is $50 per person. There is no parking within the borough, making access somewhat complicated.

Along with many towns across the state, Fenwick closed its beach to non-residents entirely this summer, citing crowding concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents themselves pay hefty fees for use of the golf course, beach, and tennis courts: $650 for couples, $1,300 for families, and $1,950 for multi-generational occupants of a “cottage,” according to the borough website. For short-term renters of Fenwick cottages, the charge is $325 per week or $1,300 per month.

In addition, Fenwick residents pay taxes to the borough as well as to the Town of Old Saybrook on homes that easily cost $2 million to $6 million.

Visitors Not Welcome

This summer, on the Connecticut Coastal Access Defense Facebook page, there were tales of Peter the Fenwick park manager, said to ride around the borough in his golf cart, telling non-residents walking along Fenwick roads that they were trespassing. In a video posted to that page, a woman disputes the park manager’s claim that the road she’s walking on is private. He then tells her that her filming their interaction violates the “voyeurism law” and threatens to call the police.

Suzanne Mei and her family have a home in Fenwood, just across Maple Avenue from Fenwick. They live there during the summers and over holidays. Mei is a runner who has run along a path through an open space north of Wilson Avenue on the west side of Fenwick. She has done this for 13 years.

This summer, she was walking her dog along the path when she ran into the Fenwick park manager, who asked if she was a Fenwick resident. He told her she couldn’t walk there, as it was private. He told her the area was delicate and should not be walked on.

“I don’t understand why the residents would be less of a hazard than others,” she said.

Residents, she said, are permitted to drive on the dirt road in their golf carts.

“He stood there and waited until I left,” she added.

Mei has noticed new signs going up, in addition to the one at the corner of Sequassen and Neponsett avenues, that proclaims the road is private.

“Travel Prohibited Except for Property Owners and Those with Legal Access Rights,” the sign says.

In 2011, the warden of the Borough of Fenwick and first selectman of Old Saybrook signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU). It states that all “active roads” in the borough are owned by the borough and “are open to the general public.”

The exceptions are Maple Avenue, which is a state highway, and “a portion of Sequassen Avenue and the two roadways sometimes referred to as ‘Wilson Avenue’ and Freeman Avenue.’”

The portion of Sequassen Avenue that is not public is not defined in the document.

Asked where Sequassen Avenue becomes private, Fenwick Manager Jeffrey D. Champion said, “It would be the very tail end of it. Basically, the property owners own out to where all the driveways start breaking out in the different directions. You can walk out there to that point and technically you’re supposed to turn around and go back.”

But the sign is situated before any driveways connect to the road and Sequassen continues for some way, curving around to the right and heading out toward the Lynde Point Lighthouse, where it does divide into driveways.

Mohegan Avenue is not listed as one of the two private streets, yet a sign declares it private.

Champion said he has not heard any complaints about Pete the park monitor and is unaware of his telling people that public roads are private.

“The roads are open to the public with the exception of Sequassen Avenue and...roads that lead out to the Long Island Sound,” he said. “Those are private property. They’re owned by the property owners. They’re dead-end paths toward the beach.”

According to Fortuna, the Town of Old Saybrook does not maintain any of the roads in Fenwick.

Champion said that the park monitor is attracting more attention this summer because of the pandemic. People who usually come for the summer came back early this year.

“The influx of people coming into the borough and trespassing is at an all-time high,” he said. “People run into Pete more often than in the past. It wasn’t as big an issue in the past.

“We are not trying to keep the public out,” he continued. “We’re just trying to keep the public where they’re supposed to be and from trespassing on private property.”

For instance, he said, “You can’t jog through the golf course. Our insurance doesn’t allow for pedestrian traffic on the golf course. Golfers are supposed to have a golf bag and pay the daily fee.”

Crossing the golf course puts people at risk, he added.

Mei and Skrainski, who is also a runner, have both said they were told by Pete they weren’t allowed to drink from the golf course fountain.

“Why would the public not be allowed to use a public water fountain?” Mei asked the Harbor News.

One of the golf course employees had directed her to the water fountain, not because she asked, but because it was a hot day.

Open to the Public

Champion pointed out that an area on South Cove is open to the public. It is located near the borough offices.

“There’s a whole large section there—a grove and meadow that are all open to the public,” he said.

Brooke Girty, president of the Lynde Point Land Trust, described it as “quite a large shoreline woods, a very quickly dwindling resource.”

There are a couple of parking spaces there, she said, and maintained trails.

“It has really pretty overlooks with benches where people can go and enjoy South Cove,” she said. “There’s a lot of wildlife there.”

The grove is not listed on the abbreviated Visitor section on the Fenwick website.

Brainard could not be reached for comment on this story.




Aviva Luria covers news from Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Aviva at a.luria@shorepublishing.com.

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