Old Mill, New Problem: The Back Story

Last week’s announcement that public parking at Old Mill Beach is reopened was straightforward. Parking is once again available for vehicles with beach emblems or hang tags, on a space available basis.

But the Parks & Recreation Department news underscored long-running tensions between residents of Old Mill and Compo Cove, and residents in other parts of town.

Parking at the small beach opposite Joey’s by the Shore has always been limited. There are 35 residences by the beach or over the twin wooden bridges (accessible only by foot). There are 13 garages in back (they’re private property, each deeded to a home). A few properties do have room for parked cars. After re-paving a year ago, the lot was striped for 64 spaces.

The parking lot in April 2019, after paving and re-striping. (Photo/Matt Murray)

Parks & Rec placards identify vehicles that belong to residents. Those allow residents to park overnight there.

Old Mill and Compo Cove owners and renters have also been allowed to purchase 4 passes: 2 for themselves (1 per car, license plate-specific), and 2 for guests. The cost is $330, and they do no guarantee parking spaces.

During the COVID shutdown — designed to minimize crowds on the sand — Old Mill residents bristled at charges that they had a “private beach” paid for by Westporters’ taxes.

Old Mill Beach, early July (Photo/Diana Griffin Coyne)

“We pay for the schools and other services we may not use,” Matt Murray says. “I’ve been here 32 years, and never had a child in the school system. It’s part of funding the town.”

(Old Mill residents have their own complaint. This spring and summer has seen a steep rise in the number of tweens and teens jumping from the wooden bridge into Mill Pond. Some ride bikes there; others dropped off by parents. Residents say the youngsters have been loud and disrespectful, and have vandalized cars in the lot. Parks & Rec has now assigned an employee to the area. But that’s another story.)

A time-honored ritual, in 2019. The parking garage — part of some owners’ property deeds — is in the background.

For years, Old Mill was Westport’s forgotten beach. Once upon a time, there was a lifeguard. Then it eroded so badly that swimming became almost impossible. The Mill Pond behind it was in bad shape too.

But Old Mill is back. People swim, go crabbing and fishing, use skim boards and boogie boards, and walk out (and party) on the mud flats. The Mill Pond is healthy again too.

Old Mill in June (Photo/Les Dinkin)

The popularity of Joey’s by the Shore/Elvira’s Coffee Bar — particularly now that the Compo concession stand is not open — has added to the allure of Old Mill Beach.

With Compo operating at half capacity (meaning occasional closures on great-weather weekends), plus some Westporters’ hesitancy to hang out at still-crowded Compo — along with the fact that more people (including kids) than ever have stayed home this summer — Old Mill has never been more attractive.

Old Mill Beach (Photo/Dan Woog)

For a couple of weeks, a social media firestorm pitted Westporters demanding more access to the Old Mill parking lot against residents defending their right to park there.

Parks & Rec’s recent decision to reopen Old Mill Beach — under the regular, first-come-first-served parking rules — has quieted the tempest.

For now — let’s hope — everyone can play nice in the sandbox.

22 responses to “Old Mill, New Problem: The Back Story

  1. Mark L. Yurkiw

    Let me know if I have this correct- old mill beach is a public beach? and the parking lot is not the property of those who live in a locked & gated access path to their beach houses?…and they are unhappy that the public has access to public parking? ….and who owns the access bridge and path to their homes?…and they don’t want to pay town taxes because they don’t use the town? ….and in the middle of a pandemic when kids need a place to go they aren’t happy they make noise? Please help me understand, there is a lot I don’t know and would like to be clear about. thank you.

    • Tammi Denison

      Welcome to Westport Mark…crazy isn’t it? The NIMBY’s and increased demands somehow always tend to congregate around coastal neighborhoods. Maybe something’s in the water? Old Mill people need to get a grip and just enjoy where they live.

  2. Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

    Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

  3. I fear it’s not a matter of “playing nice” but simple a city-like competition for scarce resources. Your numbers are 35 houses in Compo Cove and Old Mill. Let’s assume two cars per house making 70 before guests. 13 cars are in the private garages, leaving 57 cars looking to park. The lot has 64 spaces. It’s one thing to get shut out of a parking lot for a beach; quite another not to be able to park near your home.

  4. The residents of Old Mill Road are not behind a gate (securing private not town property). The garages flood on a regular basis (I bet they will be flooded at least one time tomorrow and/or Wednesday). They are also very small so larger vehicles cannot use them.

    I think Bill Kutik has it right about not being able to park near a home. If the Old Mill Beach lot is full, you can access Burying Hill (has life guards on duty to protect your little ones) and is not very crowded. Or one could travel to Compo, it has full time life guards on duty.

  5. Michael Friedland

    Welll….I am an Old Mill resident.
    Mark, you don’t have it right. Tammi, I do have a grip
    Anyway, interesting how this has turned into a controversy where none exists. Parks and Rec has been great. And folks at the gate have been amazing. Unfortunate that some must perpetuate negative themes through social media.

  6. The town has oversold the lot with special rules for Old Mill/Mill Cove residents and their guests (up to 140 passes for 65 spots). While they like to say it is on a 1st come basis for all residents, it really isn’t. Mill Cove residents are allowed to park 24/7. They don’t have to move a car and don’t “turn” the spot for others to use (like the other beaches). As a result, the lot is 80% full with just Old Mill residents and it frequently closes during the summer.

    Old Mill is a Westport gem and rules should consider the use of all Westport.

    • Diana, a legit question (I think): Where should residents of Old Mill and Compo Cove park, if not in that lot?

      • Bill Strittmatter

        There are lots of places where there aren’t enough spaces for residents to park, though mostly in cities. Usually the answer is either do without a car or rent a parking space somewhere else (which may or may not be conveniently located to where you live). Of course, things tend to be a bit more walkable in cities.

        I assume there is some history of why so many houses were allowed to be built in an area without adequate parking. Fewer cars or cars per house then? Maybe residents should be limited on number of cars they can park in the lot if that’s the case.

        It would probably be useful to know that back story before getting overly worked up about it.

        • Patrick LeBedis

          Bill – a thoughtful response, and question. The ‘back story’ is that Compo Mill Cove used to own the Old Mill Beach Parking Lot – it was given to the Town to manage – private beach front land for the benefit of the Town of Westport.

          • Mark L. Yurkiw

            Please correct me, I understood up to the high tide line all beaches are public by law.

      • Start with eliminating the guest passes, which would go a long way to solving this problem. No one else in Westport gets guest passes for any beach–we shuttle our guests from other legal parking spots.

        There are a few alternatives for Old Mill resident parking, but that’s for the residents and the HOA to decide. Town officials should set policy so that this beach and lot stay open to the public, instead of privatizing it for the benefit of Mill Cove residents.

        • I do get the guest pass issue. But what are the alternatives you allude to?

          • Dan, it’s important to clear up the misconception that Old Mill residents don’t have parking. They do and it varies, some have a single spot and a few have graveled spots plus garage spots allowing for multiple cars. It appears a couple homes have chosen green space instead of parking space. Here is the Westport GIS map to see the details https://www.axisgis.com/WestportCT/

            Mill Cove residents (19 homes + 2 vacant lots) don’t have parking, and have rights to 14 (not 13) deeded garage spaces that are infrequently used. Most of the Mill Cove homes have invested heavily to rebuild after the storms and to mitigate for future flooding problems, but no money has been put into the garages. Why not? But why would they invest when they get free and unfettered access to the public lot. Maybe rebuild the garages to make them more useable or demolish and make a private lot which provide the needed parking.

            Many other beach residents are also parking challenged. Consider allowing overnight parking at the Soundview lot or overnight parking at Mill Cove with time limits (i.e. 4 hours) during the day.

            There has been no transparency by town officials regarding the policies. Let’s open this up and understand the facts and resolve it in the best interest of Westport.

  7. Wyatt Jansen

    I would think that when buying a house here, you would do so understanding that you live directly across the street from a public parking lot and public beach. That’s going to bring some noise and disturbances that you wouldn’t get, say, living on a cul-de-sac in the woods. The tradeoff is that you live in a beautiful, waterside location. As for the parking, if it’s not guaranteed (i.e., part of your deed) then you would also know going in that the town can always change its policy. The houses would be worth a lot more with guaranteed parking, but as it is, the existing owners paid less and chose to run the risk that things would change. And so it may. This area is charming, but it also seems to me prime for adaptive reuse – it must be one of the most hurricane and flood-vulnerable areas in Westport, and its aesthetics will not be improved when, after the next storm, all the houses are on 15′ stilts. But that may very well solve the parking problem!

  8. Matthew Friedland

    I don’t think people care much about teens spending time on the old mill bridges. But they cross the line when they are rude and leave their trash everywhere. While there are some good kids that are respectful, 9 times out of 10, when I walk over those bridges, I am given an unwarranted hard time, making it an unpleasant walk for anyone trying to go for an enjoyable walk.

  9. All questions become moot tonight before 1 am high tide when all the garages will be flooded and likely the parking lot as well. At least waves will be crashing onto the lot. Experienced Old Mill and Compo Cove residents will be moving their cars somewhere to higher ground. Plenty of spaces for other Westporters to park.

  10. Stacie Waldman

    I think the teen hangout issue is a separate issue and is a police issue if they are doing anything illegal. This should certainly not be tolerated and sounds like “groups of teens being dropped off” which doesn’t impact parking spots. I’ll also add that I have personally only had positive interactions with old mill residents and guests every time I’ve been down there. Friendly bunch!

    I’m sorry to hear that some People took an inquiry about parking in a public lot as negativity on social media. You can spin that narrative/insult people who are bringing a buried issue to light, or you can see it as months of Westport sticker holders being (often nastily) turned away at Old Mill Beach while priority parking was given not just to Old Mill Residents, but up to 70 of their guests while no guest of any other Westport resident has been allowed to park at any other beach because of COVID-19. Conversely, there are many people in town staying local this year with limited camp options trying their best to keep their kids occupied and happy. Personally, we don’t have a pool and the kids are on my watch only from 6am-6pm. Long Island Sound is our swimming pool. Old Mill at low tide is our playground.

    Dan, what’s missed here is the driveway spots that many people at Old Mill Beach actually do have. Those on the cove don’t have driveways, they just have the private deeded garages, but many houses do have some parking spots associated with them. If the garages are too small as has been said, the cove HOA should work to remedy this issue. The public lot should not be turned into private parking on the town’s tab because cove residents chose cars that are too big.

    This came about because several people emailed Jim Marpe and Jennifer Fava months ago about being turned away from Old Mill lot when there was ample parking there. I was asked to be patient and I was, then 4 spots opened to sticker holders with no announcement. A couple of weeks later the lot “opened” to all of Westport but as Diana said, fully transferrable guest tags for the entire season, and 2 per house for a total of 70, means that there is little parking turnover so still few spots available at any one time. There are no guest passes available to Compo Beach area residents this summer, for example, many of whom also have very limited parking spots and cannot park on the street.

    We all make decisions when purchasing a property and there are pros and cons to everything. Old Mill Beach AND the lot are PUBLIC. Taxpayers pay for the parking guards’ salaries (my guess is $75,000+ total for the season), the repaving fees (my guess is $100,000 to repave last year), plowing and maintenance costs (my guess is $50,000+ per year). These are guesses because the town has not responded to my inquiries about the costs to taxpayers for Old Mill’s public lot.

    As a side note, the argument that you don’t have kids here but pay school taxes so you deserve a town-owned-and-paid-for parking spot is a great one (see other posters comment) and the town should think about extending an Old Mill parking spot to anyone who doesn’t have a child in the school system any more, including those who send their kids to private schools. (This is a joke.) Or, if you really think you’re wasting your money paying school taxes when you don’t have a child in school here, maybe you’re better off in a place with very low school taxes but waterfront property. Florida?

    Dan, you’re asking for the solution to the difficult parking situation for Old Mill residents. For guests, they should have the same alternatives as all of the rest of us when we want to bring our guests to the beach. Uber, shuttling guests back and forth, or giving your guests use of one car and keeping their car at another allowable location like the train station private lot are things the rest of us do all the time here. We love our neighborhood and house but we CHOSE a single driveway with a barely usable garage and parking is a pain for guests as our street is also extremely narrow. As Diana said, long term guest parking at Old Mill does occur and then severely limits day use for Westport taxpayers (i.e. lot funders) for recreation. The guest tags are transferrable so can be passed along all season long, or even resold. Alternatives that have worked other places include “occasional guest” passes, where you just have to call the Westport PD and give them your guest’s license plate number and they can park overnight for (e.g.) 3 nights while visiting.

    There are much bigger issues like school and racism and the election….but this is also the “pandemic summer” and recreational activities that are socially distanced have never been more important to all of Westport’s staycationers.

  11. Stacie Waldman

    Dan, coincidentally, I just noticed that the last photo you posted (taken by you) is of my family and some of our friends down at Old Mill. You can see how happy we look even if only the back of our heads!

  12. Mark L Yurkiw

    Can anyone tell me if the footpath after the bridge door is public or privately owned?

  13. Catherine Sidell

    I am dismayed by your recent post/photo
    of kids jumping into the Mill Pond.
    I believe it glamorizes and promotes a sort of Huck Finnesque experience, that is in fact,
    a dangerous and largely, if not entirely, unsupervised
    Sherwood Mill Pond is an expanse of tidal water that runs shallow… even at peak high tide. I’d implore parents to reconsider.
    I would point out the equanimity with which your post skirts the very real issue of social distancing on the foot bridge.
    The narrow bridges make it virtually impossible to abide by social distancing with kids congregating
    to literally “ hang “ jump or dive, residents/guests and visitors to Compo Cove would be forced to jump in, to maintain a 6ft safe distance .
    I personally have not known, in 20+ yrs,
    any local family to allow their kids to jump / dive / cannonball into such a shallow waterway.
    The need for enlightened governance of OMB
    & CC can not be overstated, although it is overdue.