By Mara Certic
After almost five years in court, a decision has been made on two lawsuits filed against the East Hampton Town Trustees and the Town Board, determining that beachfront homeowners on Napeague do not own the stretches of beach in front of their houses.
In September 2009, home- and business-owners along the southern side of Napeague filed two separate suits against the town, claiming to own the ocean beach in an effort to prohibit vehicles from driving on it.
The first of the suits, named the “Seaview” case was filed by several Napeague homeowners associations claimed owners of oceanfront property owned a 4,000-foot stretch of beach along the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Trustees, who have jurisdiction over most town beaches. In a decision dated September 3, 2014, New York State Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo found that the homeowners do not have jurisdiction over the area between the beach grass and the high-water marks.
Affectionately and quite appropriately known as “truck beach,” the area has for years been popular with local families who access it in four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, a grassroots, not-for-profit organization called Citizens for Access Rights (CfAR) was formed in order to oppose the privatization of East End beaches. CfAR, which is not affiliated with any political parties, raised thousands of dollars over the years in order to support the Trustees in the lawsuit.
White Sands Motel Holding Corporation filed another suit with the same claim over a smaller stretch of beach in front of the motel, further east than the “Seaview” property.
“There’s some pluses and minuses for both sides,” Tim Taylor, the president of CfAR, said of the recent decisions on Wednesday. “There are two separate cases so there are two separate rulings.”
The judge handled the two cases at the same time, he said, because “the plaintiffs in those cases are looking for the same results.”
“They found in the Seaview case that the homeowners of the subdivisions do not own between the edge of the beach grass and the mean high water. They did not find on the White Sands case, that the town owns that beach, but they did find that the homeowners don’t own it in the Seaview case,” he said.
The White Sands decision rejected the town’s effort to have the suit dismissed by a summary judgment, which basically determines the suit to be without merit.
The court did not rule that the White Sands beach property was owned by either the Trustees or the motel, but merely determined that the ownership was unclear, Mr. Taylor said.
“Either way we do expect an appeal process on both sides and we would just really hope the town Trustees and the town board continue their fight of this case and we don’t lose sight of what’s at stake here. It’s not really an all-out win for either side,” Mr. Taylor explained.
Assistant East Hampton Town Attorney John Jilnicki said Monday that the town was in the process of reviewing the decision in order to figure out how to proceed. “We could appeal it and not let it proceed to trial, but I don’t think the decision’s been made yet,” he said. He added the town hopes to have made a determination within the next week or so.
The East Hampton Town Trustees did not return phone calls by the time of this paper’s publication. Their attorney, Anthony Tohill, said he was not prepared to comment on the decision on Tuesday.
David Lys, founder of CfAR, was asked in a 2011 interview with The Sag Harbor Express if he thought property owners would ever stop seeking to privatize beaches on the East End. “Will it ever end?” he was asked.
“Unfortunately, I don’t believe it will,” he said. “With the turnover rate in housing out here, and the monetary wealth combined with the fact we live in a litigious society, people will throw their money around and sue over something like this because it is the easiest course of action they can take.”
Just last week those proposing a members-only club at East Deck in Montauk called for an adjournment on the decision after outcry from the public. Over 5,000 people signed a petition calling for the East Hampton Town Planning Board to deny the application or require an environmental impact study. The Ditch Plains Association held a memorial paddle-out where hundreds of surfers mourned the potential loss of the family friendly beach.
ED40 LLC., owner of the motel, issued a statement saying a significant number of public comments had led them to offer the land to the board for public acquisition. Mr. Taylor had no comment on the potential purchase of the land but said, “We hope that no matter what happens there, the public has access to that beach. Whether it is purchased by the town or whether some sort of development does go through there, we would just like to see that the public is able to use and access this beach.”