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The Hartford Courant

August 4, 2002


Author: STEPHANIE REITZ; Courant Staff Writer


Pleasure Beach sits in Long Island Sound in wind-whipped neglect, 
its shores covered with seaweed and oyster shells.

Nature has started reclaiming the once-thriving recreation area, a 
peninsula cut off from public access when the lone bridge to the mainland
burned beyond repair in 1996 in an accidental fire. A narrow, sandy strip
not open to vehicles is now the only access to the peninsula.

The sizable cost of a new bridge, concerns over an endangered bird species
that lives on the beach and a lack of interest from most lawmakers have
hindered the project.

So for the last six years, sunbathers and families have crowded onto other
shoreline beaches while 64 acres of publicly owned land, within view of
Bridgeport and Stratford, literally goes to the birds.

``This is a vital piece of waterfront property. It's just outrageous that
nobody can get to it,'' said state Sen. George ``Doc'' Gunther, R-Stratford.

A Popular Place

Many Connecticut residents have fond childhood memories of the popular
Pleasure Beach amusement park, which dated to the late 1800s.

In its heyday, the park included a roller coaster, carousel, bumper cars,
a saltwater swimming pool, a theater and a ballroom that drew big names in
music, such as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

As attendance at Pleasure Beach dwindled after the amusement park closed
in 1966, Bridgeport considered selling the property to private buyers or
the state. Instead, the city added a new pier in 1987 and a pavilion in
1996, which was completed just before the bridge fire and was never used.

Today, the empty beach stretches for more than a mile around the perimeter
of the peninsula. Tall weeds grow through cracks in the pavement on the
main road, while breezes blow through the empty bathhouse and concession

A new bridge or causeway is estimated to cost $9 million to $26 million,
depending on the design and location. This does not include the cost of
cleaning up and monitoring the beach if it were reopened.

Bridgeport, which owns the Pleasure Beach area on the southwestern portion
of the peninsula, does not have the money to build a new bridge.

Nor does Stratford, which owns Long Beach West on the peninsula's
northeastern portion, on which about 45 cottages once sat. The town is in
an expensive court fight to try to evict about a dozen remaining cottage
owners, who sued after their leases on the town-owned land were canceled in

And the state? No deep pockets for a new bridge there, either, and a
lukewarm reception to the idea as a whole.

``There's nothing out there other than those cottages,'' said state Rep.
Jacqueline Cocco, D-Bridgeport, co-chairwoman of the legislature's
transportation committee.

``Until there's something out there, why spend the money necessary for a
bridge when we're already struggling in this economy as it is?'' she asked.

A combination of $20 million in state and federal funds had been promised
in 1994 to replace the old bridge to Pleasure Beach before it burned, but
the state Department of Transportation canceled the funding in 1995.

Gunther has been trying ever since to secure state funds to replace the

But even in good economic times, the proposal ``just didn't sell'' at the
Capitol with anyone other than its most ardent supporters, said state Sen.
Biagio ``Billy'' Ciotto, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the transportation

``Every year it comes up, and every year it goes down the drain or into
the ocean, so to speak,'' Ciotto said.

A few years ago, it looked like a bridge might not be needed after all. A
$25,000 grant was set aside in 1999 from the Long Island Sound specialty
license plate fund to create a water taxi to run between Bridgeport and
Pleasure Beach.

But the money was later redirected to other projects after Bridgeport
realized it could not afford to run the service even if the state provided
the start-up money.

Birds And Sunbathers

The few people who venture to Pleasure Beach and Long Beach West usually
come by boat, but docks are scarce.

So the piping plover, an endangered bird species, has taken advantage of
the lack of humans and begun to proliferate on the peninsula.

The plovers are more established on the Stratford portion of the
peninsula. But they have also started laying eggs recently on Pleasure
Beach, where state and federal wildlife officials carefully rope off their

Some local officials hope a plan can be reached that allows public access
while complying with regulations that protect the plovers.

``I don't think any of us want to see endangered species harmed, of
course. But we also want humans to be able to enjoy it,'' said Jennifer
Hillgen, a Stratford Town Council member.

Bill Kolodnicki, manager of the nearby Stewart B. McKinney National
Wildlife Refuge, said passive-use recreation, such as swimming and hiking,
has co-existed with piping plovers very successfully elsewhere.

``The birds don't take over the whole beach. That's not the way it
happens,'' he said.

The lack of a bridge to Pleasure Beach offers environmental advantages
because it prevents vehicles from coming onto the peninsula. But another
type of access, by ferry, for example, would let people enjoy the land with
less impact on the wildlife, Kolodnicki said.

Supporters of replacing the bridge, such as Morgan Kaolian, a former
traffic reporter for WICC-AM, which has two towers on the peninsula, say it
is ridiculous to have a publicly owned site that is inaccessible to
residents and tourists.

``It's a people's park, and we're going to lose it to the piping plovers
if we don't use it,'' Kaolian said.


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