OLD LYME — Public access to Miami Beach will be restored on Thursday after a court-ordered removal of a fence, but officials of the charted community said the ruling was unfair and will create costly problems for the town.
Plaintiffs took the Miami Beach Association to court in 2018 to force the removal of a chain link fence installed by the association in 2017 on the border between Miami Beach and Sound View Beach.
The plaintiffs’ claims were based on a 1953 Superior Court decision that ordered the beach association to remove a fence separating the two beaches. That decision cited the language in the property deed specified by developer Henry J. Hilliard, who owned the property prior to 1941, that Miami Beach was “dedicated to public use and enjoyment” in perpetuity.
In an April 4 decision consistent with the 1953 ruling, the State Supreme Court denied a second appeal by the Miami Beach Association to keep its chain link fence at the border of Sound View Beach, upholding the Appellate Court’s 2020 decision in favor of the plaintiffs.
The Miami Beach Association is a private, chartered beach community. Sound View Beach is part of the town and is not a chartered beach community.
Sound View resident Kathleen Tracy, who led the list of plaintiffs, told CT Examiner on Tuesday that she “couldn’t be happier” with the court victory and that the fence is coming down on Thursday.
“I think it’s a big win for the people,” she said. “Seems like every generation needs to learn the lesson that this is not your beach and you cannot put up a fence here… It’s free, encumbered access to the public, and it’s very clearly stated.”
Besides Tracy, the plaintiffs included Jerry Vowles, Dee Vowles and Rob Breen.
Tracy, who has owned her cottage in Sound View for 19 years, said that after the fence was erected, she decided that the “people needed justice” and she hired a lawyer who told her she had a case and that she could win, but the case could take five years, at significant cost.
“It took as much money as he said, and maybe a little more, but I decided that it was worth it because what is the price of justice? There is no price,” she said. “For me it’s not about sound bites, it was about an injustice and I felt obliged to step in to right a wrong, and I did, and I won. I’m happy and I’m really looking forward to taking my first swim this weekend without the fence.”
But Mark Mongillo, president of the Miami Beach Association, told CT Examiner that the association was “extremely disappointed” with the ruling.
“I personally feel, and even our lawyers feel, that neither the trial judge, Judge Knox, nor the appellate court got this right. From my perspective, they took the easy way out. They didn’t even look at our deed or even try to see if we had any claim to what we were trying to do,” he said.
“All they did was look at a fence, and they took a 1953 ruling that from our perspective was flawed from the very beginning by a judge who, from what we’re hearing, went far beyond his judicial powers at that time, and has since put Miami Beach in such an undesirable and exploited position for the past decades.”
Mongillo said the ruling did not account for language in the deed specifying the beach as “a passageway for free entry and egress for foot passengers and bicyclists only.”
“It uses the word ‘only,’” he said. “It does not say anything about a fence. It does not say anything about sitting on the beach and lounging around. Nowhere in there does it say people can just hang around and do whatever they want.”
Mongillo said the fence provided a line of demarcation so that the association could institute its “clean beach” program, which he said was working, and included a $5 to $10 fee for entry to the beach.
“It kept the beach secure, controlled, family-oriented,” he said. “Now at this point, all hell may break loose because we are taking down the fence.”
He said that before the fence was erected, the beach was filthy.
“You’d swear you were living in a landfill,” he said. “When the public comes down, they don’t care if they leave their pizza boxes and the dirty diapers and the hypodermic needles and bottles and cans,” he said. “I’m not talking about just a few years. This has been going on for decades and we’ve taken it and we’ve done everything and we’ve spent money up the wazoo to try to control things and then we come up with this ‘clean beach’ program that was working.”
He commented that the vehicle registration in the State of Connecticut includes a $15 charge that supports the state parks so that admission is “free” to residents, and that Miami Beach should be able to do the same.
“We’re trying to charge a fee so that we can keep our beach clean and secure and safe,” he said.
The town provides stipends to the chartered beach associations, but he said the amount is $40,000 short of what Miami Beach spends on beach cleaning and security, with Miami Beach members picking up the financial slack.
“Now we’re saying, why? Let the town worry about it, let the town increase their budget,” he said.
“And I’m going to instruct our members, if there’s an issue on the beach, call the state police, let them worry about it, because we’re done.”
Moving forward, Mongillo said the association’s lawyers had presented options that he needed to take back to association members, and that he could not disclose.
“We’re not giving up, we’re going to try to look for other avenues,” he said. “My hope, my prayer is that there is some judge out there, some legislative body that will just give us the time of day to look at the deed and examine it. That’s all we’re asking for and that’s all we ever asked for and we never got that. All they saw was a fence and a 1953 ruling, and the judge went beyond his authority when he made that decision.”
Mongillo said the plaintiffs’ victory was short-sighted and added that the association probably would have gladly taken down the fence had that been the sole issue.
“They won the battle, but ultimately, they’re going to lose the war because now they’re going to see what kind of hell’s gonna break loose when there’s no controls,” he said.
He commented that there was a perception that Miami Beach “is the bad guy.”
“That we’re ‘the Goliath,’ [but] I’m sorry, we’re ‘the David,’” he said. “We’ve been exploited for decades and this decision has just exacerbated the whole thing.”
Scott Boulanger, director of the Miami Beach Association Board of Governors, told CT Examiner that “unfortunately, Miami Beach is stuck with this public access” even though “the association owns the beach outright.”
In a similar issue, Boulanger said the association was trying to figure out whether it could control public access to Pond Road, which is owned by the association. Pond Road connects with Hartford Ave. and Portland Ave., which are part of Sound View.
“It’s again one of those things that we own a road. We have to allow people to use the road,” he said. “It’s one of those things we have that folks are paying extra money towards an association but have to allow the public on their property to do stuff – it’s the same thing with the road,” he said. “It’s something we’re working on with the town and trying to figure out what makes sense for everybody.”
Tracy commented she hopes to bring the beach community back together now that the court decision has come down.
“My goal right now is to unite, come together, and enjoy the beach because beach people are open people. They’re caring people. We love everyone. And so let’s get back to getting along, enjoying the beach together. Let’s just be, you know, the people who love the beach together. That’s what it’s all about – not excluding anyone.”