In the wake of a court decision last month which Southampton Town Trustees believe endangers their ability to regulate beaches, and therefore protect access, on Monday night they sought the support of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC).
With members of the East Hampton-based not-for-profit Citizens for Access Rights (CfAR) in attendance, the trustees implored the CAC to put political pressure on town and state officials to ensure over three centuries of legal precedence is not eroded and shorelines are protected from being bulkheaded into oblivion.
CAC co-chairman Stephen Steinberg made it clear from the outset the trustees had come to the committee for support.
“An erosion of this kind of power with a lack of support from the town board will hurt us in terms of trying to protect the natural beauty we have,” said Steinberg. “This is a town built on its beaches. Without our beaches, we might as well be Arizona.”
In the May 9 decision, State Supreme Court Justice Peter H. Mayer ruled that the town trustee’s power does not give them control over beach landward of the high tide mark. The decision was a judgment in favor of Quogue Village and two homeowners who buried fabric tubes filled with sand under dunes to prevent erosion of the beach.
Justice Mayer plainly states in the decision that while the trustees have the right to retain title to underwater lands and can control what structures are built on those lands, it does not have control of the shores or beaches on the South Fork.
As Southampton Town Trustees President Eric Schultz explained on Monday night, the trustees do hold title over the town’s underwater lands, but also have had an easement over the shorelines and beaches of Southampton’s oceans and bays. The reason that jurisdiction — which has been upheld in three separate court cases — is important, said Schultz, is because it protects residents access to the beaches and prevents waterfront property owners from erecting structures on the beach to essentially privatize them.
The concern with shoreline hardening structures, said Schultz, including bulkheads, the sand filled tubes used in Quogue known as Geotubes or rock revetments, is the trustees believe when they are erected on a beach other sections of the beachfront erode at a faster pace, which could ultimately harm public access.
“It’s drawing a line in the sand,” said Schultz. “It’s not allowing the beach to move northward. Once you establish a hard, fast line that beach will diminish.”
However, the trustees’ hard line stance against shoreline hardening has drawn several lawsuits in the last decade, mainly from property owners stating they are simply trying to protect their land from literally being eroded away.
Schultz said the trustees have the funding to appeal the Mayer decision, which they intend to do, but that the trustees want to mobilize the community.
“Our trouble right now is we need the community to start getting behind the trustees and asking the state assembly, the town board what we are doing to protect the trustees,” said Schultz.
He said that community support could come in the way of residents calling on state lawmakers to pass legislation that supports the trustee’s regulatory rights over the beaches or to call on town officials to support the trustees more, financially and otherwise.
“I am very concerned because I was told by a town official that this issue wasn’t about access, it was about erosion and I couldn’t disagree more,” said CAC member Jeff Mansfield.
Noting that if someone builds a home on the crest of a dune they should expect erosion will likely become an issue, Schultz said he would like to see the State of New York adopt laws that places the burden on those homeowners rather than expect the public to forgo their right to the beach.
“We are looking for your support politically,” said trustee Fred Havemeyer. “We need you to lobby, for you to realize these five guys have their fingers in the dike. If we take them out we are gone – that means you. We can survive financially, but what we need is a support base within the town.”
CfAR vice president David Lys said his group supports the trustees of both East Hampton and Southampton and that it is critical, particularly in election years, to make this a very public discussion.
“We recognize if there is a loss of rights in East Hampton or Southampton it has a regional affect,” said Lys.