Dr. Jay Walshon is a 38-year resident of Westport. He spends plenty of time at Compo Beach — and, recently, has watched hours of coverage of debates over parking fees. He writes:
Last month, Westport’s Parks & Recreation Commission reduced the non-resident beach emblem price from $775 to $545.
Member Chris O’Keeffe said, “It’s really important we share the history of this.” I agree.
In the summer of 2017, residents complained about deplorable Compo Beach neglect — uncleanliness, disrepair, litter — plus overcrowding, parking, disorderly conduct and disregard of rules. They ascribed these problems to the increasing number of non-residents at Compo.
In addition to logistical and operational recommendations, these residents wanted daily and non-resident emblem fees increased, the number issued decreased, visitor revenue captured, and the number of non-paying “drop-offs” addressed.
The Parks & Rec Commission designated a daily parking area, and increased staff, trash collections and weekend and holiday restroom cleaning.
They also considered “relocating the entry booth, daily pass sales, signage, events, traffic, rules and regulations, and police presence and enforcement.”
Lowering the number of beachgoers by decreasing non-resident emblems and daily passes, and increasing fees to offset revenue, became a primary consideration.
To avoid anecdotally based decisions, Parks & Recreation director Jen Fava was tasked to recruit college students to gather objective data. This never occurred.
Representative Town Meeting member Carla Rea asked how much of Compo Beach’s $2 million revenue was budgeted for maintenance. Ms. Fava did not have an answer.
RTMer Sal Liccione asked how many personnel were dedicated to maintaining Compo during summer. She did not have that information available.
Ms. Fava estimated that grievance rectification would cost $200,000. To recoup revenue, the Parks & Rec Commission raised resident parking emblems by $10 to $50, and Weston by $125 to $375. The number of non-resident emblems was lowered from 600 to 350; daily passes were capped at 100.
Equating it to a “seasonal Vermont ski lift ticket,” Ms. Fava increased non-resident emblems from $490 to $775.
John Suggs warned: “raising prices that could exclude non-Westporters is bad policy.”
Michael Calise declared that $775 “unreasonably punishes non-residents.” Because Compo revenue exceeded $1.5 million, he requested a justifying accounting of revenues and expenses. Ms. Fava could not provide this.
- “Hopefully the increased fees and decreased non-residents will result in fewer people at the beach.”
- “$775 is steep but the right direction, because it’s still a great deal.”
- “This is a town beach; you need to think about the residents before you think about people from out of town.”
Among the Parks & Rec comments:
- “Reasonable step to decrease overcrowding; right approach.”
- “We need to focus on the property taxpayers here that are paying for the beach.”
- “This shouldn’t offend anyone.”
- “This is the fairest way to assess them.”
- “Non-residents should pay their ‘fair share.'”
- “This is going to work out very well.”
Ms. Fava’s outrageously insensitive $775 ski-lift equivalency, and targeting non-resident utilization via parking price and quotas, reverberated into the state legislature.
House Bill 6650 — introduced recently — says:
No municipality shall: (1) prohibit nonresidents…from entering or using a…municipal beach…or a municipal facility associated with such beach, unless such prohibition applies to residents of such municipality; or (2) impose on non-residents a fee for such entrance or use, or parking associated with such entrance or use, that is greater than twice the amount of any fee charged to residents for the same purpose.
In other words: If residents pay $60, a town can’t charge non-residents more than $120. Prohibiting non-resident drop-offs would mean prohibiting residents too).
Describing $775 as “unacceptable,” the Parks & Rec Commission reduced it to $545, increased the number to 450, and raised the number of daily passes to 120. Even $545 is still far higher than any other area town.
Ms. Fava explained she was “now looking at things through a little bit of a new lens in terms of where the current climate is … because we went from $490 and skyrocketed to $775, way out of alignment with other waterfront communities … really doesn’t reflect our accessibility goals we want to have to let people come in and use our facilities.”
She defended the 2018-2022 $775 price, declaring “it was a very different climate.”
For decades, beach fees and accessibility barriers have been under the discrimination microscope. The only “climate difference” is HB6650, and the state’s perception of our exclusionary attitude and treatment of non-residents – our third rail.
We shouldn’t wait for legislative imposition before re-addressing beach access structures. “Over-crowding” and “equitability” warrant clarification. Metrics providing data on cost and problem intensity/frequency should replace anecdotes.
Compo’s revenue and expenses must become transparent.
The Parks & Recreation Department’s “Beach/Pool Operating Analysis 2019-2020” showed revenues of $1,820,995 (pool $15,429), and expenses of $498,720. The result: a $1,322,275 surplus.
Non-resident 2018 revenue was $519,800 (including Weston, it’s over $750,000.
RTM member Chris Tait said, “What we did wasn’t well received in the state. A lot of articles were written about us being outdated and alienating people to not go to our beaches.
“It didn’t look good, and gave fuel to the fire of people in Hartford who may not like what we do in Westport. What we did didn’t help us as a community. Bringing this back down is a way of acknowledging that, saying we are open to people from out of town. We are not exclusive.”
The manner in which issues were framed in 2017/18 exposed subliminal entanglements of entitlement, elitism and privilege, leading in part to HB6650.
Ms. Fava’s focus remains the false narrative that “things are different now,” the “optics” of being perceived as an elitist, privileged, exclusionary community – and above all, the fear of Hartford.
Instead of targeting non-residents, effective management and rules enforcement are the key objectives. But this requires leadership that doesn’t equate Compo to a Vermont ski resort.
These tone-deaf missteps needlessly blemished our community. It was avoidable.
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