written for The New York Times

AS soon as beach season started, I set out on an odyssey to test the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that municipal beaches must be open to the public, not just to residents. In the family van, my two daughters and I sought out beaches from Greenwich to Madison. Our plan was just to ask if we could use the beach and see what happened.

What we found was a system that was both restrictive and human. As the Supreme Court ordered last year, towns have indeed made their beaches public, but the prices are so high and the rules about buying passes so awkward that much of the Connecticut coast remains as out of reach as ever.

In Greenwich, for example, it cost $50 for my girls and me to use the beach and would have cost $60 if my husband, Nat, had come along. That’s outrageous by any standard. And economics is just the first hurdle. Many towns restrict parking around the beaches. And, finally, some don’t sell nonresident beach passes at the beach. They must be bought at town offices, which are sometimes closed on weekends. So even when I was willing to pay the price to get in, I still faced being turned away.

But we got in everywhere we tried, even when we weren’t supposed to, and that was because of the people charged with enforcing the beach policies. These gatekeepers seemed embarrassed by the rules, often apologized for them, and sometimes tried to help us work around them.
In Madison, for example, the man checking cars told me that I had to buy our $40 worth of passes at the town offices, but that they were closed. He let us in anyway to ”look around.” In Stamford, the gatekeeper waved me in when I said we didn’t want to stay that long. He saved us $20 and a trip to the Government Center, which, like Madison’s office, is only open on weekdays.

In Greenwich, where I arrived at the beach on a cloudy Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, three different town workers warned us we would have to pay $50, as if to give us a chance to back out. The young man at the guard shack at Greenwich Point, which was at the center of the Supreme Court case, apologized when he told us the fee. ”I know that’s outrageous, but I didn’t make the rules,” he said, directing me to a town civic center about a mile away where the passes were sold. As I arrived there, a man sitting outside warned me about how much money I was about to spend and the man inside who sold me the passes said the same thing. It seemed everybody was trying to change my mind.

Back at the beach, the young man at the guard shack obviously felt bad that I had paid so much money to go to the beach on a cloudy day. So he told me he wouldn’t stamp the passes so I could use them on a better day.
My trip around the state’s beaches was full of such moments.

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About This Article

My editor, Jim Schembari, suggested I take my two daughters, Elizabeth and Annie, with me on a tour of the municipal beaches in Connecticut, which a court ruling had recently opened to anyone from any town, as long as the visitor paid the entrance fees. And these fees were sometimes very, very high. We got our bathing suits and a few changes of clothes and set out in the old van on Memorial Day weekend. Annie, who was 11 years old, asked me as I turned into Candlewood Lake’s entrance drive (in Danbury), “Are we going to be arrested?” If we had, of course, that would have made a very good article, since they would have been breaking the new law by not allowing us in. This article was published by The New York Times newspaper on June 23, 2002 and currently appears in its entirety on their website at the following address: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/23/nyregion/towels-sun-block-and-oh-yeah-…

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