By Jim Marquardt
No joke, on April 29, 1985, the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice Berger ruled that for legal purposes Long Island is not an “island” but a “peninsula.” Just imagine the ramifications if this decision was carried to its logical conclusions. Stating the most obvious, we’d have “Long Peninsula Sound,” “Long Peninsula Railroad” and “Long Peninsula Lighting Company.” But that’s just the tip of the naming iceberg. Think of the need to change company names and road signs, thousands of maps all over the world, even sports franchises. New York Peninsulars? It boggles the mind.
On his website, Attorney Oscar Michelen says that his old law professor Myles MacDonald was a member of the team representing New York in the case brought by the United States against the 13 states bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The Federal Government conceded that the states had interests in the seabed and subsoil up to three miles from their coastlines, but wanted to affirm its exclusive rights beyond that limit. This made it important to establish the official coastline of each state. In New York’s case, the U.S. argued that the coastline didn’t start along the south shore of Long Island, as you’d expect, but along the shores of Westchester County and Connecticut, north of Long Island Sound. This naturally would have limited New York’s rights to its offshore waters.
In researching the case Attorney MacDougall discovered that since the East River separating Manhattan from Long Island only became navigable when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged it many years ago, it does not constitute a natural break from the mainland, and voila! Long Island is not an “island” but a “peninsula,” making our south shore New York’s legal coastline.
The Supreme Court eventually agreed to this position and New York triumphed. To make sense of its decision, the Court had to declare that Long Island Sound is a “juridical bay” whose waters are almost completely enclosed by land and are “state inland waters.” Translated from legalese, the Court said that the bay is closed at the line drawn from Montauk Point at the eastern tip of Long Island to Watch Hill Point on the Rhode Island shore, and that the waters of the bay west of the closing line are “internal state waters.” The waters of Block Island Sound east of the line are “territorial waters and high seas.”
The Court apparently realized the chaos that could occur and said the peninsula designation was only for legal purposes and that we could continue to call our home an island. While New York came out a winner, Rhode Island failed in its rather far-fetched claim that its coastline should run from Montauk Point to Block Island to Pt. Judith. We surmise that the Feds initiated all this kerfuffle to avoid future disputes with the states regarding rights to fishing, seabed mining, perhaps even offshore wind farms.
In digging through the matter we learned that a 1556 chart of Long Island based on the voyages of Verrazano shows Long Island as a peninsula named “Flora.” No kidding, the chart is in the Brown University Library. We romantics would like to think that mapmaker Giacomo di Gastaldi was immortalizing a girlfriend by that name, but it probably referred to the heavy vegetation on the island (or peninsula) observed by explorers sailing along the coast.
As if being dubbed “Flora” isn’t stressful enough, we learned that the cheeky citizens of Whidbey Island off the State of Washington seized on the Supreme Court ruling and claimed that their domain, not ours, is the longest island in the contiguous United States. Despite being a measly 45 miles long, less than half the length of our island, Whidbey Islanders became obsessed with the distinction, advertising it on their website, featuring it in tourist brochures and imprinting it on T-shirts. The Whidbey Island Historical Museum Newsletter repeated the claim, and when challenged, said the person who put together the newsletter is “no longer with us,” a weasely dodge if ever we heard one. Frankly we never even realized that Long Island is the longest island of the lower 48, we have a lot more to brag about than that. But we are New Yorkers and we can’t let Washington Staters grab a title that belongs to us.
We take comfort from Dr. Patrick Kennelly, Assistant Professor of Geography at C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, who said that Long Island is a real island by any definition, and its 118-mile length is more than twice that of Whidbey. We’re sure Dr. Kennelly is objective, but really, would you expect a scholar who works at Long Island University to say anything else?
According to a 2004 article in the New York Times, Professor Michael Bauer of Fordham University joined the battle with Whidbey. He wrote to publishers of a Washington State tourist publication suggesting they correct this”gross inaccuracy” and refer if they must to Whidbey as the “longest juridical defined island in the lower 48 states per the purpose of applying Article 7 of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, but the second longest in straightforward, geographic terms.” We’d like to see them put that on a T-shirt. The publishers responded that they’d keep Dr. Bauer’s letter on file but they had just printed a new edition of the Washington State Handbook, so nothing could be done for several years. Another weasely evasion by the size-deprived Whidbey Islanders.
We certainly hope New York State and Long Island legislators are alert to the fight and make sure that Whidbey Island doesn’t get away with this rank distortion of the truth. But wait, there may be one small advantage that would come from changing our home to “Long Peninsula.” It would stop those New Jersey smart alecks who love to mock us for saying we live on “Long Guy-Land.”