Residents-only beach policy gets constitutional test

Friday, February 20, 1998

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — Lawyer Brenden Leydon says Greenwich is snobbishly trying to keep out a “certain profile” of people with its residents-only policy for Greenwich Point, a 147-acre park with a beach on Long Island Sound.

Leydon, who lives in Stamford, contends the town's policy is rooted in elitism and is a blatant attempt to keep out “undesirables” who do not share in the wealth of Greenwich, an affluent suburb of about 58,000 that is home to celebrities such as Diana Ross, Mel Gibson and Leona Helmsley.

Leydon has argued that the restrictive policy violates the First Amendment's public forum doctrine, which guarantees the right to gather on streets, sidewalks and in parks to exercise free speech and peaceful assembly.

“This policy limits my ability to speak – not only within Greenwich Point but within any park in Greenwich,” Leydon testified.

“This gentlemen presents some very interesting issues,” said Joseph Grabarz, executive director of Connecticut's American Civil Liberties Union.

Grabarz said, “This case certainly threatens the exclusive white enclaves of wealth so common in Southwestern Connecticut.”

Leydon also claims the policy violates the state's Public Trust Doctrine, which says that even though municipalities own parks, they hold them on behalf of everyone.

Leydon rested his case Feb. 19 after appearing as his own witness.

He described an incident in April 1995 in which he was turned away by an official at Greenwich Point. The official allowed a reporter accompanying Leydon to enter the park, citing an exception for journalists to the residents-only policy.

But as the town began its defense against Leydon's lawsuit, they disputed the snob label and said its real concerns are ecological. They argued that it's the birds, not the people, the town is worried about.

Piping plovers, American oyster catchers and least terns are just a few of the endangered and threatened species that would be disturbed if Greenwich Point is opened up to the general public, said Thomas Baptist, the town's former conservation director.

“To protect Greenwich Point under existing levels of use was a challenge,” Baptist testified. “Contemplating additional use presents many concerns.”

Hartford attorney Ralph Elliot, one of five lawyers defending Greenwich and a homeowners' association, also asked Baptist if other Connecticut towns have residents-only policies. He said the town of Madison had a similar policy.

According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, of Connecticut's 78 miles of sandy beach, only 30 miles are public. The remaining 48 miles are under various restrictions—either privately run or under the control of associations.

Elliot argued Greenwich Point, which does allow guests of residents to use its beaches for a $6 fee, is regulated as a beach, not a park, and therefore the town's policy does not violate the public forum or public trust doctrines.

He said the three Greenwich ordinances that established the residents-only policy do not violate Constitutional rights to free speech.

“These ordinances have nothing to do with freedom of expression,” he said. “This ordinance is an access ordinance, not a speech ordinance. It has nothing to do with speech.”

Elliot cited a 1919 special act of the Connecticut General Assembly, which gave the town the power to reserve its parks and beaches for use by its inhabitants. That right was confirmed in 1955 in another act; both acts were adopted under the town's new charter in 1976.

— First Amendment Center reporter Corey Q. Bradley contributed to this report.