Fifty Years Have Passed, and Little Has Changed for Connecticut’s Beaches

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To the Editor:

I grew up in Old Saybrook but spent my summers in Old Lyme. My grandfather had built a cold-water cottage at Old Lyme Shores in 1953 so, my summers and summer friends were formed around the private beach association of OLS. I knew it was a private beach. There were gates, and the private beaches of Old Colony and Edge Lea flanked us. And it did not seem odd to me that one could list all the OLS Irish families from the tops of the streets down to the sea wall. Until it did seem odd.

While researching material for a historical novel about the origins of Connecticut’s private beach associations, I discovered a father and son realty company had built these private beaches from old coastal farmland. Then they got the state legislature to grant the associations special charters to set their own zoning and taxes. It was an effective development strategy. By the time Governor John Dempsey warned in 1961, “The time is not far off when the last remaining open area on Connecticut’s shoreline is usurped for some private purpose,” it was already too late. For most of the state’s residents, Connecticut had become a state without an accessible, public coastline.

The charters also contained restrictions on cottage construction and other activities, including who could buy or rent an association cottage. In my novel, the protagonist—David Enders—asks the Old Lyme town clerk about the deed from a beach association he’s helping build. “Is this common language for properties around here? ‘…properties herein conveyed shall not be sold, leased, or rented in any form or manner directly or indirectly to any person or persons: (1) who are not of the Caucasian Race; (2) who are not acceptable either to the Grantor or to the Directors of the Beach Club Association…’” The clerk assures him it is, to which Enders replies, “…it seems like wording that might lead to all kinds of trouble down the road.” Surprisingly, it did not. Not for fifty years.

In the early 1970s, activist Ned Coll began busing Hartford kids to private beaches in Saybrook and Old Lyme to highlight the public’s lack of access to a once-open shoreline. For some of my family and neighbors, it was their Pearl Harbor. In response, OLS and other beaches were hardened with better fences and gates, festooned with No Trespassing and Private Property signs, and guarded by summertime busybodies checking the comings and goings of residents and suspect guests.

Now another fifty years have passed, and little has changed. There is the occasional court case about beach access — Leydon v. Town of Greenwich, for example. Local arguments about fence lines and the definition of “mean high tide” boundaries periodically erupt and fade away. What has changed is the character of the private beach associations.

Those communities of seasonal cottages for a few lucky middleclass families are now year-round, gated retirement communities for the grandchildren of the original cottage owners. Public water and sewers came to the associations, and those simple summer cottages were remodeled or razed to become expensive McMansions. Now the beach associations are defended year-round by retirees with time and money on their hands.

In my novel, a lawyer for the NAACP asks David Enders, “What do you think is going to happen to all this once-open coastline?” Enders reluctantly admits, “I guess some people will enjoy the beach and some won’t. Just like always.”

Edward McSweegan is a writer in Rhode Island where most beaches are public.