Nonresident Sues Over Park Access


There is a spot of trouble here in Cheever country, the suburban promised land where moneyed executives ride the train to Manhattan and return each evening to sprawling homes and cool breezes off Long Island Sound.

It started when law student Brenden P. Leydon went for a jog. His run began in the not quite so tony adjacent town of Stamford and was brought up short at a guard shack that stands vigil at the entrance to Greenwich Point Park, a handsome spit of beach and picnic tables, of shorebirds and wild beach rose.

Leydon was not a resident of Greenwich. He did not have the park pass that only Greenwich residents can get. So he was denied access to the town park. Being 27 at the time, Leydon shrugged it off, figuring he could sneak into the park some other day. But he could not.

So, being a lawyer in training, he sued.

The lawsuit will be heard this fall in Superior Court in Stamford. It is raising nettlesome questions of class bias, snobbery and even racism for the 58,000 residents of one of America's oldest and richest suburbs--a gilded community of the kind immortalized in the stories of John Cheever.

Worth magazine this year listed Greenwich, where 7.2% of the population is nonwhite, as the 40th richest town in the nation. Greenwich, the Connecticut bedroom community closest to Manhattan, has become a trendy home for young brokers who have struck gold in the bull market. Average home sales this spring topped $1 million.

"We are supposed to be one nation under God indivisible, but when it starts to affect your backyard, people throw that principle out the window," said Leydon.

"Since I filed the suit [two years ago], I have had a number of Greenwich residents tell me they wouldn't particularly care if I came in, but it was who would want to come in behind me that they would be worried about."

Leydon is white and said he believes those comments were circuitous ways of referring to blacks who live in neighboring Stamford and Port Chester, N.Y.

From Cape Cod to Puget Sound, Lake Tahoe to the New Jersey shore, affluent municipalities and rich private estates have been challenged by outsiders demanding access to the strip of land that runs along the edge of oceans, sounds and major lakes. Although there is no hard and fast national legal precedent guaranteeing access, courts and legislatures in many states have been inclined in recent years to give outsiders limited pedestrian access to the beach.

As town residents strolled in the park recently, they denied racist or elitist intent in restricting access to it.

"It is a legitimate lawsuit," conceded John J. Kennedy, a retired engineer from Greenwich who was walking with his wife. "But it is an annoyance."

Townsfolk have set up a legal fund, which reportedly has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have hired a prominent Hartford lawyer, Ralph Elliot, who teaches at the University of Connecticut Law School.

"It is our belief that the Greenwich ordinances which the plaintiff is attacking are both legal and constitutional, and that is the beginning and the end of the inquiry," Elliot said.

Asked whether Greenwich's policy of denying outsiders access to its beach is snobby, Elliot said, "This case is about what's legal and what's constitutional, not what policy is good or bad."

Greenwich maintains it has the right to restrict access because, since the town bought the 147-acre site in 1944, it has refused federal or state funds to keep it up.

"We've never taken a dime," said Greenwich First Selectman Tom Ragland. "We didn't buy this thing [the park] for everyone. Charity begins at home, by and large."

Ragland said the park is "a resource for those who cannot be members of private clubs. . . . The people that use this beach aren't the super-high-profile people that jet-set around the world."

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