The Southampton Town Trustees at a public forum at Hampton Bays High School on Tuesday.
By Stephen J. Kotz
The Southampton Town Trustees, who are sometimes confused with either the town board or any number of village boards, held a well-attended forum at Hampton Bays High School on Tuesday night to explain their role as the longest standing elective body in town government and outline some of the critical challenges facing them.
First and foremost among those challenges are a series of lawsuits that have been filed by property owners seeking to challenge the Trustees’ authority to regulate construction of things like revetments and retaining walls along the shoreline, maintain regulatory control over public beaches, protect the health of bays and streams, and even control their own purse strings.
As if to drive the point home that the Trustees are under siege, President Eric Shultz, who presided over the meeting, pointed out that a court reporter, seated at the front of the auditorium, was transcribing the event for plaintiffs in one of those suits.
The suits include one filed by residents of West Hampton Dunes over whether sand that has built up on the beach belongs to the homeowners or the town; a related suit by the homeowners that is seeking to take away the Trustees’ rights to control their own finances; a suit by the Trustees challenging the state Department of Environmental Conservation over revetments in Southampton Village; a suit over a Quogue resident’s placement of geotubes in front of their home without a permit; and a suit brought by Brookhaven Town baymen over fishing rights in town waters.
“Every suit is completely paid for out of Trustee money,” said Mr. Shultz. “The sale of sand out of Mecox Bay has allowed us to pursue them.”
Tuesday’s meeting was also attended by members of the town board, who sat in the front, but did not participate until pressed to do so by Bill Stubelek of Hampton Bays, who questioned whether town board members supported the Trustees in their mission.
After both Councilman Brad Bender and Councilwoman Brigid Fleming made brief comments, Supervisor Anna Throne Holst closed the meeting by reassuring the public the town board was in fact in Trustees’ corner.
“There is a recognition of a staggering amount of issues facing us with a staggering dollar amount attached to them,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. “We support the Trustees. We support the important work that needs to happen. We support the fact that one of the most important things we need to do is work together at every level of government.”
In an interview on Wednesday morning, Mr. Shultz said he was pleased by the show of support from the town board, but he added, “We’ll see it in deeds” and said the Trustees especially need the board’s support in getting the State Legislature to reaffirm their status.
Mr. Shultz said the Trustees typically send their members out in the community discuss their work with various civic groups but had decided the time was ripe to hold a more formal forum.
“The Trustees control the economic engine of this town,” he said of their authority to protect the public easement over the beaches. “There are more and more people out here who don’t know who the Trustees are. We want to educate them so when we need them to come out and support us they are up to speed.”
The crowd was largely sympathetic. “You guys are understaffed and terribly, terribly, terribly underfunded,” said Tom White, an 11th generation Southampton resident. He offered a litany of problems affecting the health of the groundwater and the bays, from leaching septic systems, to town highway department catch basins that drain harmful road runoff back into the aquifer. He added that a sharp increase in irrigation was further affecting the quality of the groundwater.
“You are doing a great job,” he concluded. “Ask us for our help and we’ll try to get you more money.”
George Lynch of Quiogue said the Trustees were in a “situation akin to war” and called for residents who were concerned about everything from beach access to preventing pollution need “to give not just our cooperation but the kind of loyalty you’d give in a war situation.”
He urged the Trustees to hold more such forums to promote their causes. “If you need the help of citizens, I believe it will be there,” he said.
Another speaker, Scott Lewis, said the town should hire a “water superintendent,” whose duties, he suggested, would be to keep the waters clean, similar to how the highway superintendent is responsible for keeping the roads clear in the winter.
On Wednesday, Mr. Shultz who had spent his morning at a meeting to discuss dredging projects with county officials and planned to spend his evening at a meeting on duck hunting regulations, said the Trustees were a decidedly grassroots form of government. “We have a lot of responsibility,” he said, “and we don’t have any staff. We do it all ourselves.”
Early in Tuesday’s forum, Mr. Schultz reviewed some of the major legal decisions that have affected the Trustees’ authority. An 1818 decision gave the proprietors, who were literally the original owners of the town, authority over common lands, and the Trustees authority over the waters. The proprietors were eventually able to claim the beaches as common land, but when they disbanded in 890 after selling off all of their assets, court ruled that the Trustees still controlled an easement over thee beaches below the high water mark, a situation that largely remains in place today.
“We’re not gunslingers. We are going after cases that are really important,” Mr. Shultz said of the Trustees’ legal battles. “But were under increased pressure and with these lawsuits, we feel we haven’t been getting coverage and people don’t know the importance of what’s at stake with their beach rights.”