Woog’s World / Compo Beach is meant to be diverse
Published 12:00 am, Thursday, September 14, 2017
Earlier this week, Westport’s Parks and Recreation Commission held a public meeting. The men and women who oversee our town’s golf course, tennis courts, marinas and other facilities wanted to hear how their constituents felt about the one place that ties this town together more than any of those listed above: Compo Beach.
It looms large in our lives, but Compo is relatively small. Stretching only from Schlaet’s Point on Hillspoint Road to South Beach, where Long Island Sound meets the boat channel, it nonetheless packs plenty into just a few acres.
Compo Beach is the place where Westporters gather to swim, sun, grill, picnic, buy lobster rolls, play basketball and pickleball and countless other games, romp at a huge playground or sit on the cannons, sail, windsurf, kayak, read, walk, jog, bike, watch fireworks, party together or be alone.
It’s the closest thing Westport has to a community center. But it’s not just ours.
We are joined by Westonites. Our neighbors to the north get a special rate for stickers. It’s not the rock-bottom price we pay - but it’s less than the daily or season fee charged to other out-of-towners.
Not that the cost keeps folks away. A casual stroll through the parking lot on any semi-nice summer day shows a high - very high - percentage of New York license plates. And to get into the lot on some weekends, you first have to wait in a line of cars that could stretch nearly to the Minute Man monument.
That line included a number of taxis and Ubers. Not everyone who comes to Compo parks there. A constant stream of vehicles drops off a hefty number of visitors, at the convenient turn near the volleyball courts.
The beach has been a favorite destination for Westporters - and others - ever since the first trolley ran from the train station. Back when the concession stand sat where those volleyball courts are today, tradesmen and anyone else could park, eat lunch and enjoy the view - all without a sticker. Westport’s policies have long been among the least exclusionary of any Fairfield County coastal town.
Whether that is good or bad - and whether the economics and demographics of beach use are changing - was the topic of hot debate all summer long. It’s also the reason our Parks and Rec commissioners held Wednesday’s open meeting.
There are no easy answers. Increased usage brings a host of issues. Although the daily and season fees bring in important revenue, the lion’s share of the costs of Compo - maintenance, operations, lifeguards, security, dredging, you name - is borne by Westport taxpayers.
Increased usage means sharing our favorite amenity - its sand, its space, its barbecue grills, its access roads - with many others. And as beach usage evolves - with people spending more time at Compo, erecting ever-larger tents and hauling more paraphernalia like coolers and Cornhole games and whatnot - we have to share a finite space with more and more “others.”
It must be said: The fact that those “others” do not always look and sound like “us” is also part of the conversation.
We may not be comfortable having that conversation out loud. But it’s inescapable that the conversations we hear as we walk along the boardwalk and sand are not always in English.
I happen to think it’s great. I love the diversity I hear. Spanish, French, German, Russian and a host of other languages I can’t quite identify bring me out of my Westport bubble -all without leaving my hometown beach.
Extended families cooking unfamiliar foods and playing; the pleasure they take in sitting and swimming and playing on the grass that is often underused by Westporters - it adds a richness to an otherwise outing.
We are lucky to have this magnificent facility. I am happy we can share it with others who are not fortunate enough to afford to live here - and who pay for the privilege of using it (unless they come by Uber).
I am well aware that not every Westporter agrees with me. There are valid arguments for restricting access, either by raising the daily and season fees, limiting the number of passes sold (including, some propose on Westonites), or some other method. (Reconfiguring the entranceway itself seems a no-brainer.)
These arguments have nothing to do with where our many visitors come from, the color of their skin, or the languages they speak. They are legitimate discussions about taxes, resources, and the current and future direction of our town gem.
All of those issues and more were up for discussion on Wednesday. I wrote this column before the open hearing, so I’m not sure who made what points. But I know this town - and Westporters -- well enough to write this ahead of time.
I’m certain this Compo story is more than just a day at the beach.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com