Last weekend, Darien residents John and Joanne Driscoll wrote a letter to The Darien Times after they say they had a bad experience walking in town.

After writing about the various walks they’ve been taking, the Driscolls said they had driven to one of Darien’s beaches.

“Today was a different story. We drove to Weed Beach and wanted to walk Nearwater Lane, where we were met by a man and a security guard, who would not let us pass,” the letter said. Read the letter here.

After posting the letter on The Darien Times website, some on social media had commented that the couple may have gone south on Nearwater lane, which meant they were heading into the private community of Noroton Bay.

John Driscoll clarified that they had intended to walk south and knew it was a private community but he thought walking wasn’t prohibited anywhere in town.

Currently, given the pandemic, roads have been much busier with walkers, bicycle riders, runners and more. But what are the rules when it comes to private neighborhoods?

Private neighborhoods

Darien has several private streets and neighborhoods. Usually, private neighborhoods are owned and run by a homeowners association. There are signs that indicate “private,” but don’t always specify or spell out what that means.

The most formalized of Darien’s private neighborhood areas is the Tokeneke Association. Their signs make what is permitted very clear.

The neighborhood is labeled with signs that say “Restricted. No non-resident jogging or bicycling. No soliciting. Unauthorized vehicles will be stopped.” These signs are at various boundary areas of Tokeneke.

The residents are members of a separate tax district and also pay to maintain their own neighborhood. Tokeneke residents do not rely on the town for snow removal or storm debris removal — they pay for it themselves.

According to information included in the Tokeneke Association bylaws:

“The Tokeneke Tax District is charged with the responsibility of raising funds sufficient to enable the community to enjoy certain basic services. The Tokeneke Association is the contractor for such services and also acts as a social organization for the residents of the community.

The District was established by the General Assembly of the state legislature in January 1957. It was empowered to levy a tax on all property owners within the District (based on the Grand List of the town of Darien) for the purpose of providing such essential services as road maintenance and special police protection.”

It is patrolled by constables, who work in cooperation with the Darien Police Department.

Tokeneke constables have arrest powers, and handle trespassing enforcement checks, check on suspicious calls and alarm calls.

Other private areas, in addition to Noroton Bay, include Delafield Island, Allwood Road, Echo Drive, Salem Straits, and others.

Noroton Bay

Unlike some other private neighborhoods, Noroton Bay faces more pedestrian challenges by being adjacent to a public beach and parking lot at Weed Beach. With many alternate forms of indoor entertainment and schools closed, many are flocking to Darien’s open spaces.

Normally, during beach pass season beginning this Memorial Day weekend, non-residents can pay to get on Darien’s Weed and Pear Tree Point Beach. Some on social media blamed the influx of Weed Beach visitors, and pedestrians in that area, on out-of-towners.

Under the current emergency orders by the Town of Darien due to concerns about the pandemic, there is no option for out-of-towners to visit Darien beaches. Only those with a current Darien beach pass, obtained from the town, can get into the beach parking lots. In person sales at the beaches are suspended for 2020. Read more about the updated policies here.

To obtain a residential beach pass, go here.

Rules have been updated on the Noroton Bay community entrance sign to address the neighborhood’s policies. Over the original sign that said “Noroton Bay/private” now reads a sign that indicates the neighborhood is for residents only.

“Per town of Darien guidelines and precautions related to COVID-19, our neighborhood is closed to all outside pedestrian traffic. Residents and Noroton Yacht Club members only. Please no entry beyond this point unless you are a resident of Noroton Bay,” it says.

The law

Recently, Darien police included a note about private neighborhoods in their weekly release to the media.

“Given the nature of the pandemic, we are seeing an increased volume of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. We wanted to take the opportunity to remind residents that there are streets and portions of town that are privately owned,” they said.

“The residents/owners of these areas are within their rights to restrict access, much as any homeowner has the right to restrict access to their property. The decision to allow pedestrians, joggers, and bikers is the sole decision of the private entity, so we ask that you are mindful of this as you enjoy the outdoors,” Darien police said.

Because the property is private, there are legal reasons for homeowner associations to keep out non-residents. Should a non-resident injure themselves in some way, which could be more likely in properties near the water, the homeowner association could be held liable and be sued.

Stamford criminal defense attorney Mark Sherman, who said he often handles trespassing cases in Darien, said the private neighborhoods should be viewed as someone’s private home.

“It is like a big estate. The homeowners association owns all the land and it is insured privately,” he said.

“Just because it looks like a public road, and smells like a public road, doesn’t mean it is. It is private property,” he said.

Confusion

Part of the confusion may arise in that some of the private areas in the past have been less likely to enforce the residents only when it comes to walking. However, given that pedestrian and bicycling traffic has tremendously increased, neighborhoods have, for safety reasons, had to revert to more stringent policy enforcement.

Some private neighborhood residents also mentioned off the record that they are less bothered than others by non-resident Darien neighbors walking through.

This is evident in that letter writer John Driscoll mentioned that he’s walked through Noroton Bay before with no push-back.

“We are all going through the COVID-19 crisis together. For those who resent pedestrians, they should have a little common sense and compassion. This will not last forever. We have lived here for 28 years and have never been treated this way. We have also walked that area before,” he said.

Driscoll, a 28-year Darien resident and Vietnam veteran, added, “We were not looking to cause any trouble, just some exercise to keep ourselves healthy.”

Other options

For those seeking exercise, Darien’s parks and beaches are now open. Trails at Selleck’s Woods and Cherry Lawn are open. Read more here.

Trails and grounds of Connecticut state parks are also open. Read more here.