Residents debate shoreline fence in Woodmont

A short, nautical fence will go up along a stretch of beach in Woodmont unless a resident is successful in overturning a ruling by Milford’s zoning enforcement officer.

A battle over this piece of beach, long viewed by many people as public domain, has been going on for several months in the city’s Planning and Zoning office and centers on a question of who owns the parcel. A stack of folders and testimony tells the story of a property owner at 108 Beach Avenue going before the Zoning Board of Appeals for permission to build a fence and put up “no trespassing” signs to keep people off the rocks and grass along the Woodmont shoreline, not far from the Anchor Beach flagpole.

A posting on Facebook Tuesday drew the public eye to the matter, which is scheduled to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals again Tuesday, March 8.

“Today I was walking my dogs along the beach route we normally take almost every day in the summer in Woodmont. Littered amongst the sidewalk at the corner of ‘Merwin Point’ are signs taped all along the sidewalk that explicitly state, ‘No trespassing! Do not walk dogs! Do not sit on grass! Do not sit under pine tree!’”

The Facebook writer says that a few feet past the temporary makeshift signs, which are now gone, there was a sign explaining the matter.

“It simply states that a gentleman from New York who owns 108 Beach Avenue (across the street), is claiming that this stretch of property on the opposing side of the road, that the city has been using since 1895, is ‘his’ property.”

The Facebook writer is angry, noting that he proposed to his fiancée at this very spot.

“This area will be lost!” he writes.

Bill Coleman, who lives on Blackall Road, put up the temporary signs that the Facebook writer saw. He wanted to let people know about the impending fence and to let them know he is appealing the recent ruling by the city’s zoning enforcement officer that would ultimately allow a fence to be placed there.

Zoning Enforcement Officer Stephen Harris initially told attorney Charles Willinger, who represents property owners Steven and Carlo Micceri, that there was some question about whether a fence could be erected along the shore there. Harris questioned whether the land was a legal lot of record and if the homeowners across the street actually owned it. Several ZBA members said it wasn’t clear whether the parcel belonged to the 108 Beach Avenue property owner or was part of Woodmont Beach.

So in September, because it wasn’t clear that the parcel was privately owned, Harris sent the petitioner a letter saying that a variance would be needed to construct a fence and put up “no trespassing” signs

But Willinger argued that the property owner did not need a variance for a fence because he owns the parcel and the city already has regulations regarding fences.

Willinger argued that the family has to maintain the beach property but it has a hard time doing that because of the level of trespassing. He said people think it’s public property, so they walk their dogs there, drink alcohol, litter, and sometimes even camp there. Willinger maintained that the parcel is privately owned, and that trespassers are abusing the land.

According to meeting minutes, Willinger presented a petition with 52 signatures from people who support a fence there. Ellen Austin, for one, said that the rock is shale and breaks easily and is therefore dangerous.

But Coleman countered that the land has been part of the public right-of-way for many years. He said the real issue is “privilege and class,” according to meeting minutes, and he said that the people who support the fence are just trying to privatize the beach.

He doesn’t believe Harris should have changed his mind on the matter; he thinks Harris was right the first time when he questioned whether the beach-fronting property was privately owned.

But Willinger appears to have proven his client owns the property: In January, based on information from Willinger, Harris withdrew his September letter stating a variance would be needed. Minutes from the meeting say that Harris indicated that the ownership of the property had been documented. That meant that as long as the owner lowered the height of the proposed fence to less than three feet, he wouldn’t need a variance. The proposed fence will be two feet, 11 inches, according to city officials.

The ZBA denied a request to put up six “no trespassing” signs, but the owner has the right to erect one sign on the parcel, city records state.

Coleman insists that ownership of the land “is ambiguous” because some city records do not treat it as a legal parcel. He argues that if the owner at 108 Beach Avenue is concerned about liability, he should deed the property to the Borough of Woodmont, as other property owners along this stretch have done.

But Willinger said he proved with deeds that his client has owned the beach-front portion of the land and that it has been privately owned since 1896, when the town built the roadway. He said his clients want to hold onto the property, and not deed it to Woodmont.

Willinger said he expects the fence will go up soon. It will be unobtrusive and nautical in design, he said, adding that it won’t block views of Long Island Sound.

The upcoming Zoning Board of Appeals meeting will start at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 8, at Milford City Hall.