Fifth graders question Fairfield's beach policies
Luke Sohigian, John McMillian and Gus Bochanis -- upset over the fact that boogie boards, skim boards, rafts, balls and other inflatable objects are banned from Fairfield's swimming areas -- have managed to get the Parks and Recreation to agree to take a look at the current policy at its July 21 meeting.
The Mill Hill students describe the swimming areas as "no fun zones" and said that the various restrictions leave too little space for them to play. Swimming is not their thing. They'd rather ride a wave. If the boys want to boogie (board), they are relegated to the waters outside the town beaches -- in front of private property, where there are no lifeguards.
"[In] the area where we can do all the fun stuff," 10-year-old Luke Sohigian said, "the boats are really close to the shore and sometimes get in our way, and most of the time, teenagers are doing crazy stuff, launching off of ramps. It's not good to be over there."
Luke and his friends met with Parks and Recreation Director Gerry Lombardo earlier this month and handed him a petition for change that included hundreds of signatures they had collected at their school and at the town beaches.
The children's parents said they wouldn't expect the Parks and Recreation Commission to make a drastic change that would allow boogie and skim board fans to run amuck amid swimmers and people just taking a dip, but they at least hope a revision of some sort is possible.
What is now an agenda item on the Parks and Recreation Commission's July 21 agenda was spawned from state Rep. Kim Fawcett's government access TV show. The boys met with Fawcett prior to filming last month to discuss what they would talk about on the show. The plan had been beach safety, but when one of the boys told Fawcett there was a "no fun zone" at the beaches and asked why it existed, the plan changed.
Fawcett told the boys that if they were willing, they could perhaps bring about change. She provided them with a sample petition, told them how to collect signatures and to get permission at their school, and suggested they write a letter to Lombardo. Luke, John and Gus were accompanied by Fawcett when they visited the Parks and Recreation Department's office to speak to Lombardo and give him the petition.
Fawcett told the Fairfield Citizen that she was excited that day because "my passion is advocacy and activism."
"That's why I do my job," she said. "These boys are learning through the process. I was so excited to share our government and our democracy and our process for change with our young people."
Lombardo explained to the boys that boards, inflatables, balls and such are banned in the waters of Jennings Beach and Penfield Beach because they would create a safety concern. For example, if a beach ball were allowed and it drifted out into the water, a young sibling who might not be able to swim as well as he thinks might chase after it. Also, an errant ball or a board could strike a child and injure him or her.
Steve Berecz, waterfront director for the Town of Fairfield, has been working on the Fairfield beaches for 28 years -- every summer since he was 18 years old. He said he has saved children who have chased after balls that blew into the water, when they reached a certain point beyond their ability to get back. He has also done first aid on innocent bystanders injured by boogie boards.
Additionally, floaties are not allowed on young children's arms because parents might be lulled into a false sense of security and not pay proper attention to their kids.
"Many parents think those things are life preservers," Lombardo said.
Luke's mother, Kelly Sohigian, said she can't understand why the town of Fairfield doesn't allow boards, balls and inflatables when so many other communities do.
She and her son were in Long Beach Island in New Jersey yesterday, where there were far higher waves than in Fairfield, yet a myriad of items were allowed in the people-filled water.
"There are a lot more freedoms here," she said via cell phone from New Jersey, and added that she also is witness to more freedom up in Montauk, N.Y., Cape Cod, Mass., and Rhode Island's beaches.
Sohigian said Lombardo's biggest concern expressed at the meeting with the boys was safety "but if there's other places they can do it and do it safely, then maybe we should investigate how they do it."
Lombardo noted other towns' beaches might have more relaxed rules because those are much larger beaches.
"We [here in Fairfield] have a small, confined area," he said. "Our beaches are smaller."
Fairfield's swimming areas, to use the fifth grade activists' lingo, have been "no fun zones" for as long as Lombardo can remember. He has been working for the town for 20-plus years and he cannot recall a time when boogie boards, balls, rafts and flotation devices were allowed in the water.
Fairfield Police Lt. Jim Perez, a police spokesman, weighed in on the subject of the "no fun" zones.
"This is the thing we have to keep in mind," he said. "The beach is not simply for just dogs, nor is it simply for just children to play. The beach is to be enjoyed by every citizen in the community and with that in mind, you have to remember that toys or boards can become projectiles and can potentially cause injury and become a liability for the town, so you have to look at the whole picture with regards to safety to the community at large."
Fawcett said the boys are on to something, that there's room for change in the current regulations, and if safety is a concern, then perhaps the rules could be lessened when there are fewer people on the beach.
"Perhaps after 3 p.m., when it's less crowded, maybe the lifeguard could have the flexibility to allow toys in the water," she said.
Sohigian would be pleased with any modification to the regulations that perhaps allows boogie boards in a certain area of the swimming area, or during a certain span of time. She plans to get people out in force at the July 21 meeting, though a location has not yet been determined.
Parks and Recreation Commission meetings normally take place at 75 Mill Plain Road, but Sohigian has been told Penfield Beach is also in the running as a meeting location.
Sohigian said she understands Lombardo's safety concern but told the Fairfield Citizen that as far as she knows, "there don't seem to be a high rate of deaths due to boogie boards [in other communities and around the country]."
"If we could just get the rules changed," Luke said, "the beach would be much more fun."
Lombardo said the Parks and Recreation Commission, before it makes a decision on keeping the rules as is, or modifying, will seek input from Berecz.
Berecz, who will offer recommendations to the Parks and Recreation Commission at its July 21 meeting, said the rules should only be modified if the positives outweigh the negatives.
"I would be looking for [the boys] to offer more positives than just having a little bit more fun at the beach, because my job is to ensure the safety of all who go to the beach, not just a select few."