STAMFORD – City representatives have a message for the state: Mind your business.
Members of the Stamford Board of Representatives this month reacted to two bills before the state legislature that would dictate to towns how to regulate parking near beaches.
The bills now are likely dead, but city representatives said they want the state to stop poking its nose into local authority over zoning matters, too.
State legislators said the reason for the beach bills was that towns use parking policies and fees to block non-residents from visiting. Public beaches should be more accessible, legislators said, since most towns receive state funding to maintain them.
The bills sought to prohibit towns from restricting parking near a beach or recreational area, and ban them from charging out-of-towners a parking fee more than 50 percent higher than the fee for residents.
Towns said local taxpayers carry most of the costs of maintaining beaches, which have limited resources for parking, police, lifeguards, cleanup, and other services. Unless Hartford is going to pay for more resources, towns said, the state should butt out.
It was a repeated theme during the March meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Parks and Recreation Committee.
“If there is one area that requires local knowledge and understanding, it’s this,” said city Rep. Virgil de la Cruz. “There are so many details beyond the grasp of statewide legislation.”
“There are beaches, access points, and just dead ends leading to the beach. It’s mind-boggling that the state would think it could control them all,” city Rep. Bradley Bewkes said. “Beaches in Stamford, for example, are vastly different from beaches in Greenwich.”
Proponents of the bills said beach access is limited to people with money, particularly in Fairfield County. Westport, for example, charges $50 for a seasonal beach parking pass for residents and $775 for out-of-towners.
Stamford charges non-residents $292 for a seasonal pass – a number set high in an effort to limit crowds and control spread of COVID-19, local officials say, and which some city representatives say should be lowered now.
“There will be families that can afford it but a lot can’t. I don’t think we should be saying we don’t want you to come unless you are affluent,” city Rep. Megan Cottrell said.
Besides, the higher fee had the opposite effect, Cottrell said.
“I live a third of a mile from Cove Island Park. Right after we raised fees, my street was clogged with cars, and so was the neighborhood,” Cottrell said. “We need metered parking, maybe $10 an hour, or something that encourages turnover.”
Beyond that, “the attitude about sharing beaches in Fairfield County is disturbing,” Cottrell said. “I think the fee for out-of-towners should be reasonable. We should have local control, but there are people who don’t want to share the beaches, period. I think the smart thing to do is take it on ourselves.”
“We can figure out the fees. The point is, who is calling the shots?” city Rep. Daniel Sandford said. “We as a city have to provide for public safety, beach patrol manpower, facilities, restrooms. We know what we can do. Are the people from Hartford going to know that?”
The fees are not the issue, city Rep. Nina Sherwood said; the issue is self-determination.
“I don’t want the state telling the city how to act about COVID or zoning or our parks,” Sherwood said. “Once we say the state can take self-determination from the city on one thing, we open the door for others. I think we should be on the side of giving cities freedom to decide for themselves. I can’t subscribe to the idea of one size fits all.”
The current debates over local control and zoning are much the same. In Stamford, city representatives complain that the state legislature has undertaken measures that attempt to weaken local control of development.
One that passed last year allows accessory apartments in all single-family neighborhoods, though it provides a mechanism for towns to opt out. State lawmakers said the intent is to create more affordable housing – a huge need in Connecticut – and to improve access to wealthy, mostly white communities.
But cities like Stamford already have scores of accessory apartments, many of them illegal, that create neighborhood congestion and clog streets with parked cars.
A measure before the state legislature this year would increase the amount of housing allowed within half a mile of train stations, and allow developers to bypass public hearings.
Proponents say it’s a way around local zoning laws that are too restrictive. The change will increase the number of housing units and allow easy access to public transportation, proponents say.
Opponents say the bill would increase density, not affordability. By eliminating public hearings it would remove residents from the democratic process and give developers free rein, opponents say.
That bill died in committee, but could get attached to another bill before the legislative session ends in May, said State Rep. David Michel, a Stamford Democrat.
It’s a bad bill, Michel said. Advocates are misguided in thinking it will help people who need affordable housing, he said, and it would cut citizens out of a governmental process.
“It would mean local control would be lost to developers, as dictated by the state. It would eliminate public participation in zoning decisions,” Michel said. “It had nothing to protect people from a greedy developer and a complicit zoning board.”
Members of the Board of Representatives questioned why Michel and another Democratic state representative from Stamford, Matt Blumenthal, supported the beach bills.
Blumenthal said one of the bills has been converted to a call for a study of beach parking fees because state lawmakers “didn’t want to unduly restrict municipalities – most are acting responsibly. We hope that with additional information, we will be able to address the issue using a more data-driven approach,” Blumenthal said.
Philosophically, “municipalities should have control over their own rules and operations,” he said.
“Many communities, including Stamford, are charging responsible and equitable fees, but some communities are not. I think the state’s role is to establish boundaries,” Blumenthal said. “There’s a range in which municipalities should have discretion for what they charge, but the Connecticut Supreme Court has held that everyone should have access to beaches, and if towns are charging a prohibitive amount, that’s problematic.”
Michel said his ideas about local control are nuanced
“I wanted a discussion about beach access,” Michel said. “Generally Democrats want state control and Republicans want local control. But this politicizing of all things — from both sides — has created more radical approaches. It’s fine for towns to control these decisions, but let’s make sure they don’t overcharge for a day at the beach … because then you get this struggle between the state and the towns.”
During their meeting, members of the Board of Representatives hammered home their message to Hartford.
“This is local business,” city Rep. David Watkins said. “This is business that in our city we are equipped to handle. These are items for local control, not for Hartford.”
This story has been updated to include comments by State Rep. Matt Blumenthal