August 09, 2001
SUPREME COURT CASE ON ACCESS TO A GREENWICH BEACH
By: Christopher Reinhart, Associate Attorney
You asked for a summary of the Connecticut Supreme Court decision involving access by nonresidents to a Greenwich beach.
In Leydon v. Greenwich, the Connecticut Supreme Court considered whether a municipality could restrict access to a municipal park to residents and their guests (257 Conn. 318 (2001)). The case involved Greenwich Point Park, a park that has a beach on Long Island Sound. The only land access to the park is by a road owned by the Lucas Point Association, Inc., a private association of landowners who live in the residential area next to Greenwich Point. In 1944, when the town was considering buying Greenwich Point, the association passed a resolution that it would not oppose the town's purchase as long as the town limited use of the area to Greenwich residents. At a town meeting that year, the town approved the restriction. It codified the restriction in a 1977 ordinance.
The court unanimously ruled that the restriction on access violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the free speech and assembly provisions of the Connecticut Constitution (Article I, §§ 4, 5, and 14). Under its First Amendment analysis, the court ruled that Greenwich Point is a traditional public forum like a public park and the ordinance did not satisfy the test for a valid regulation of speech in a traditional public forum. Under its state constitutional analysis, the court stated that the government cannot restrict someone's access to public property unless that person intends to engage in expressive activity that is basically incompatible with the customary use of the property at the time in question. The court ruled that the plaintiff's reasons to enter the park implicated constitutionally protected conduct and were compatible with the activities customarily engaged in at Greenwich Point.
The court (1) declared the ordinance unenforceable, (2) declared the association's agreement with the town to limit access unenforceable, and (3) prohibited the town from enforcing the ordinance. But the court did not determine what rights the association had regarding use of its property.
FIRST AMENDMENT CLAIMS
The court stated that under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the government cannot regulate speech to favor some viewpoints or ideas over others. But content-neutral regulations of speech or other First Amendment activity can be valid. The scope of the government's power depends on the type of forum involved: a traditional public forum, designated public forum, or nonpublic forum.
The court stated that places such as streets and parks have always been held in trust for the public's use and have been used for assembling and discussing public questions. The court ruled that Greenwich Point is a traditional public forum because it has the characteristics of a public park. The court cited several federal court decisions declaring beach parks traditional public forums. It found that Greenwich Point qualified as a park for these purposes because it contained ponds, a marina, a parking lot, open fields, a nature preserve, shelters, walkways, trails, picnic areas with tables, and a library book drop. The court stated that the fact that it has a boundary on Long Island Sound that serves as a beach does not alter its character as a park.
In these public forums, the court stated that the government can enforce a regulation if it (1) regulates the time, place, and manner of expression; (2) is content-neutral; (3) is narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest; and (4) leaves ample alternative channels of communication.
The court stated that the First Amendment does not allow the government to condition a speaker's access to a public forum based on whether the speaker has support in or has connections with the local community. The court stated that Greenwich did not explain why the virtual ban on nonresidents was a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction on use of the park and even if it had a compelling interest in restricting nonresident access, the ordinance was not narrowly tailored to accomplish that end.
The court concluded that the ordinance violated the First Amendment as applied to the plaintiff because the town could not lawfully bar him solely because he is a nonresident. The court also concluded that the ordinance was substantially overbroad and violated the First Amendment because it barred a large class of nonresidents who cannot find resident hosts from engaging in expressive and associational activities in Greenwich Point.
STATE CONSTITUTIONAL CLAIMS
The court stated that the state constitution provides greater protection for expressive activity than the federal constitution and used the “compatibility” test to determine whether the ordinance was valid. Under the “compatibility” test, the government cannot restrict someone's access to public property unless that person intends to engage in expressive activity that is basically incompatible with the customary use of the property at the time in question. The court stated that the test is designed to maximize the speech that the government is constitutionally required to tolerate, consistent with the appropriate use of its property.
The court concluded that the plaintiff's reasons to enter the park (to associate with others in the park and exchange ideas and information) implicate constitutionally protected conduct and are compatible with activities customarily engaged in at Greenwich Point. The court also ruled that the ordinance was overbroad because it prohibited conduct protected by the state constitution's principles of freedom of expression and association. The court saw a wide range of expressive and associational activity that a nonresident might want to engage in that was compatible with the customary or normal activity there. But under the ordinance, a nonresident unable to find a town resident to accompany him was unable to engage in such protected activity.
The court added in a footnote that, under the basic compatibility test, “it is clear that a town cannot broadly restrict nonresident access to a town beach even if that property, in contrast to Greenwich Point, contains no other attractions or activities and, therefore, is used solely as a beach.”
THE ASSOCIATION AND ITS AGREEMENT WITH THE TOWN
The court ruled that any agreement between the town and the Lucas Point Association was unenforceable and the association had no right to enforce the town's resident only policy. The court ruled that because the ordinance was unconstitutional, enforcing the agreement was contrary to public policy.
But the court also ruled that the plaintiff was not entitled to a judgment that settled the property rights of the association. The court stated that property law or other legal doctrines might allow nonresidents to have a right to use the easement but it also might allow the association to limit use of the easement or allow it to revert to the association so that it ceases to exist. The court stated that these issues were not explored at trial and will not be resolved until the parties decide what to do after reading the court's ruling.