STAMFORD – For 100 years the little beach off Ralsey Road has been a neighborly place.
The sandy spot has been shared since the Scofields, one of the city’s founding families, dredged soil from Stamford Harbor to create building lots out of marshland.
The deeds of lot owners, from then to this day, grant access rights to the bit of beach along the harbor.
It has been the heart of the neighborhood for generations, said Megan McGrath, who has lived on Ralsey Road for 20 years.
“People have weddings there. They have vow renewals and memorial services. We have birthdays, happy hours, holiday celebrations. We launch our kayaks. My husband goes there to de-stress before work,” McGrath said. “That beach is how I got to know my neighbors. It creates a community.”
Now McGrath is helping to organize deed holders to fight what they see as a threat to their access – the new owners of a home beside the beach are seeking approval from the Stamford Harbor Management Commission to build two driveways at the entrance.
“It will impede access to the beach,” McGrath said. “No one will want us walking in their driveway.”
In one of the unique waterfront land arrangements typical of the Shippan neighborhood, Gad and Samantha Lavy own the half of the beach adjacent to their recently purchased home, which backs onto Ralsey Road, and Alison Malloy owns the half adjacent to her home at 1 Ralsey Road South.
That part is clear. The Lavys and Malloy pay taxes on their portions of the beach, their land-use attorney, Bill Hennessey, told the Harbor Management Commission.
What’s not clear is which neighbors have deeded access to the beach, how many there are, and what, exactly, their rights mean.
The questions made for a testy meeting of the commission’s Application Review Committee Monday night, when neighbors opposing the driveway plan crowded the Zoom screen.
“Others have the right to access the water – there is an absolute recognition of that on both our clients’ parts,” Hennessey told the harbor commissioners, but “we have not been able to determine how many others have access rights.”
McGrath said neighbors have found 46 deed holders so far, but there could be many more.
One of the commissioners asked whether neighbors walking on the driveways – both to be built by the Lavys – would be trespassing. Hennessey said no.
“So the owners would not regard people walking across the driveway as trespassing?” the commissioner asked.
“I never had that discussion with them,” Hennessey replied. “But I don’t think so.”
Beyond the scope?
The commission’s planning consultant, Geoff Steadman, wanted to know more about the deeded beach rights.
“The shared beach lot is owned, subject to the rights of others,” Steadman said. “Do the others have a legal role in this decision?”
“The deeds don’t all have the same language. The properties have been traded many times,” Hennessey replied. “My clients have the right to use their properties, as long as they don’t impede the rights of others.”
The scope of the harbor commission “is to ensure the project is not adverse to the quality of water, to public safety, and that there is no effect on navigation,” Hennessey said.
“Public access remains. Others have recourse if they disagree – they can bring a lawsuit,” Hennessey said. “It’s a legal matter, not a matter that falls within the jurisdiction of the harbor commission. … There is a venue for that discussion; that venue is not here.”
The commission has a role, Steadman said.
“It’s up to the commission to interpret its policies,” he said.
A “basic policy” of the city’s harbor management plan is to “support public access,” Steadman said, and in the Ralsey Road case, it’s “for a significant portion of the neighborhood.”
New driveway, new address
The twin driveways are only part of the proposed project.
The Lavys’ larger application is to renovate the large, brick 1930 colonial, which they purchased last year for $3.23 million, and raise it out of the flood zone. They plan to add a pool, patio and landscaping, and upgrade the stormwater system. They want to move their driveway from the front of the house at 141 Downs Ave. to what is now the rear on Ralsey Road.
When Hennessey first presented the plan in June, harbor commissioners said they liked it because it would reduce vulnerability to coastal flooding, improve drainage, and protect water quality in Long Island Sound.
Commissioners approved it conditionally, asking Hennessey to provide a drainage plan for the Malloy property and other information.
Commissioners Monday said they were told in June that there had been a neighborhood meeting.
“We were told there was no opposition from neighbors, and now we understand something different,” Steadman said. “The applicant acknowledges the rights of others, but not their right to have a yea or nay in this decision. People here tonight would argue they do. There’s no resolution to that.”
The question is whether the rights of the deed holders have been secured, Steadman said.
“I think the answer to that, we’ve learned, is no,” he said.
A showing of the uninvited
Hennessey said his clients asked about a dozen neighbors to attend a meeting about the plan, then “others heard about it and showed up uninvited.”
He heard the meeting “went better than expected,” Hennessey said.
“I spoke to a couple of people who were there. They said, ‘It’s not as bad as we thought,’” according to Hennessey.
McGrath said only about three immediate neighbors were invited to the meeting and, when word got out, people texted each other and left notes in mailboxes telling them to attend.
A message left Tuesday for Gad Lavy at the Stamford fertility clinic where he is medical director was not returned.
Commissioners said during the meeting they need answers to questions such as how much of the beach will be taken by the driveways, which the project engineer said will total 2,000 square feet, and how many deed holders have beach access rights.
“Most of what we’ve heard should be dealt with by the Zoning Board,” commissioner Sam Abernethy said.
“We have to make it clear to the Zoning Board that there is opposition to this … and that the Zoning Board has to hold a public hearing,” Steadman said.
He contacted someone from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment Protection and learned they have been asked to “re-review” the project, and the Harbor Commission should wait for those comments, Steadman said.
Commissioner Paul Adelberg made a motion for a committee vote, which passed, that the project is not consistent with the city’s harbor management plan, and that the full commission should take up the matter at its Aug. 15 meeting.
McGrath said deed holders are gearing up to “save Ralsey Road beach” not only to guarantee access but to preserve the sand for people and wildlife, keep the entrance safe from driveway traffic, and protect their home values. A real estate posting for a Ralsey Road house that sold in February for $1.37 million, for instance, opened with the line: “Shippan Point beauty with deeded beach rights!”
The beach is worth the fight, McGrath said.
“For 100 years it’s been a happy neighborhood,” she said. “We don’t believe it will stay the same if this is allowed.”