In 1983, a couple of developers decided to build a subdivision on land that had been a neighborhood beach club at Ocean Drive East, Ocean View Drive and Fairview Avenue.
The spot is in Shippan, one of the few areas in Stamford where a person can live in a house by the water.
Access to the water is so limited, in fact, that in 1979 the Connecticut Legislature enacted the Coastal Area Management Act to ensure a balance between preservation and development of shoreland.
When the Stamford developers went before the Planning Board for approval to build their subdivision, they were rejected. It was because of the CAM Act.
Planning Board members said the development proposal violated the act because it would create housing in place of the 5.5-acre beach club. Under the act, the developers had to make up for the water access they were eliminating, board members said.
They set a condition: for the subdivision to be approved, the developers had to create an easement that would allow the public to get to the beach.
The developers contested the condition; the Planning Board went to court to uphold it.
In 1984 they signed an agreement, city documents show. The developers then built a subdivision of 12 homes, called St. David’s Bluff, along with a forever public easement that included a 60-foot path from Fairview Avenue to the water.
Within a year, there was trouble. A chain-link fence went up. With a gate. And a lock. The Stamford Advocate reported in 1985 that signs appeared notifying people that they could walk along the easement but not stop on the beach. A city attorney threatened to sue the homeowners, and the signs and lock were removed. But so were city signs directing people to the public path.
In 1987, signs appeared again. “No swimming, boating, fishing, sunbathing,” they read. “Walk through only.” The city attorney ordered them removed, city documents show. St. David’s Bluff homeowners could negotiate details such as number of people allowed on the beach at one time, but swimming, sunbathing and other basic beach behavior is absolutely allowed, the city attorney said.
In 1988, St. David’s Bluff homeowners asked the Planning Board to make Ocean View Drive a private road, city documents show. No, the board and city attorney said, because that would restrict public access to the water.
Then, for about 20 years, there was mostly peace on the little low-key beach off the beaten path. Stamford residents, largely from the Shippan neighborhood – there’s no parking so you have to walk – went there to sit in the sand, have a swim, watch the sun come up, watch the sun go down, and enjoy the sounds of the gulls and the waves.
In 2007 the old feud resurfaced. The St. David’s Bluff Homeowners Association hired a monitor who sat at the entrance to the beach, checked people’s bags and coolers, and regulated their activities. According to news reports from the time, the monitor called police to have people ejected from the beach.
For their part, St. David’s Bluff homeowners have reported loud music, drinking, littering, illegal parking, disruptive behavior after dark, and other problems.
And so it has gone for nearly 40 years.
In 2020, the summer of COVID, things ramped up, said David Lasnick, who lives a few streets from the beach.
“There were more people there because people were staying close to home,” Lasnick said.
Once again, the signs appeared. “Private beach. Right to pass only. No recreating,” one reads. Another says, “Warning. Premises monitored 24 hours by surveillance cameras.”
Shippan residents reacted by contacting the Planning Board, which discussed the situation at its June 2021 meeting. As with past boards, members upheld the original agreement. According to meeting minutes, they voted 5-0 to notify city attorneys to enforce public access to the beach and order the signs removed.
Planning officials said St. David’s Bluff homeowners should file a request for reconsideration of the original agreement and bring it before the board, which would hold a public hearing so all interested parties can be heard.
In the meantime, the mayor’s office has stepped in.
“The city continues to work through a mediator with both the homeowners’ association and neighborhood residents to develop a long-term, workable resolution of this dispute,” said Lauren Meyer, spokeswoman for Mayor Caroline Simmons.
Lasnick, an attorney, said he met with the mediator Wednesday.
“It’s incorrect to call this a public beach. It’s a privately owned beach subject to public access,” Lasnick said. “The easement is in dispute, not the beach.”
Peter Hansen, president of the St. David’s Bluff Homeowners Association, said the original agreement “expressly states that ‘the easement granted is limited, and shall permit the general public to pass and repass … but only on foot, and only between dawn and dusk of each day.’”
Though the association believes the language is clear, homeowners have agreed to take part in the mediation “concerning the permissible scope of the public’s access to the association’s beach,” Hansen said.
“In the spirit of being a good neighbor,” he said, St. David’s Bluff homeowners hope “that the mediation will result in an understanding about such access that is mutually agreeable to all involved.”
Longtime Shippan resident Leslie Poltrack said the intent of the agreement that allowed construction of the 12 homes in the first place is that residents can get to the beach.
“That, in my mind, is a standing statement that the beach be protected for public access and use,” Poltrack said.
The beauty of the little beach is “the informality of it,” which Stamford residents have enjoyed for generations, said John Ashe, another longtime Shippan resident.
“This public access beach is a treasure to so many people over the years. Picture … kids, parents and grandparents, going down the path to the beach and … looking for sea glass, walking a dog, taking a swim, having a catch, sunbathing,” Ashe said. “Bring it up to the present and you’ll see that … the beach is the same, the Sound is the same, the quiet use and enjoyment the same.”
It’s odd that a place known for peacefulness has been controversial for so long. But Lasnick said he has hope.
“I think there’s a solution, a line in the sand somewhere,” he said.