Beach prohibition in deep water

Court tells Conn. town to open park to public

June 04, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

GREENWICH, Conn. - The beach here sure looks public, with its concession stand peddling $1.95 hot dogs and green trash pails that say "Property of the town of Greenwich."

But "public" has an exclusive definition in this famously posh New York suburb: It means open to you only if you live here or hobnob with someone who does.

Last month, however, a Connecticut Appellate Court ruled that the residents-only policy at Greenwich Point Park - one of the most pristine patches of sand on Long Island Sound - is illegal and has to go.

Town officials quickly appealed to the state Supreme Court. Then they issued a statement to calm the locals: "Please be assured that this ruling does not mean that Greenwich Point will be open to nonresidents this summer."

Residents, who have long delighted in their access to the nature trails, ponds and distant views of Manhattan, insist that outsiders would bring crowding, traffic, noise and trash, and just a downright lack of respect for the 147-acre property. It's not an exclusive attitude, they say, just the reality that people who pay taxes to support a park will treat it better than people who don't.

"It'll ruin the place," said Doris Mayone, 73, who has lived in town 42 years.

"It's not the elitists who come here," she said. "The elitists have swimming pools and go to Nantucket for the summer. It's mostly middle-income people."

"And poor people," said Joe, her husband.

Deeper implications

The court battle could have implications beyond Greenwich Point. The town owns another beach and two offshore islands that are under the same restrictions.

Dozens of other towns along Connecticut's shoreline also restrict - or, through prohibitively expensive fees, dissuade - use by nonresidents. Of the 78 miles of sandy beach on the state's shoreline, 30 are publicly owned, and some of those beaches, like Greenwich's, have policies favoring residents.

Maryland has no towns that restrict access to public beaches, and state officials say they would fight any town that tried. Legal experts say nothing in the law prevents, say, Ocean City from proposing such rules, but that would be self-destructive, because - in contrast to Greenwich - Ocean City has an economy that depends on outsiders flocking to its beaches.

The economy in Greenwich, whose residents include old-money families and celebrities such as Mel Gibson and Diana Ross, does just fine on its own.

The town's policy, in place since 1919, allows residents to purchase a yearly beach pass for $16. They may bring up to eight guests, who must pay $6 per visit. The park is on a peninsula reached only by a small private road that winds by sprawling waterfront mansions. No signs direct outsiders to the beach, because outsiders have no reason to be there.

Joe Siciliano, the town's director of parks and recreation, said the policy is not altogether exclusionary. He boasted of the town's "liberal" guest policy and added that anyone is allowed on the beach four months out of the year - December through March.

"There is a mystique about Greenwich Point," said Siciliano, who said that the beach is crowded in the summer and that opening it would inconvenience residents who use it to swim, sail, jog, power-walk or picnic. "People have become accustomed to having it available to them as a part of their daily routine."

BrendenP. Leydon was a resident of Stamford - five miles from Greenwich - when he tried to make the park part of his daily jogging routine in 1994. He was hardly beyond the "Greenwich Residents and Guests Only" sign when a guard shouted at him and asked him to jog back the other way.

The town, whose law had never been challenged, had unknowingly picked the wrong foe.

Leydon filed a lawsuit a year later - still a student at Rutgers University Law School, he received course credit - arguing that a town should have to treat a beach like a street or sidewalk it owns and not exclude anybody from using it. A trial court judge sided with the town in 1998, but the appellate court overturned that decision last month.

"It's a nice beach, but this was more for the principle," said Leydon, who said he hasn't decided what he'll do if the public is granted access to Greenwich Point. "Maybe I'll have a little party down there."

Leydon, a 32-year-old attorney in Stamford, has petitioned the appellate court to force Greenwich to open the beach immediately, even as the appeal is considered. The town is fighting the petition, and its officials are optimistic it won't have to open the beach.

"It's one to one," said Lolly Prince, the first selectman of Greenwich and the town's highest-ranking official, referring to the court decisions so far. "And we're confident our legal team is the best."

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