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May 23, 2012 10:30 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Beaches Bathed In Legal Battles In Both Southampton And East Hampton

May 23, 2012 11:35 AM

The Hamptons are defined by their beaches. Before the celebrities, before the benefits, and before the nightclubs and restaurants, the beach was what made the collection of small hamlets along the South Fork “the Hamptons.” And even with all those other attractions now, the beaches are still the primary driver of the entire economy.

And the beaches have also long been a battleground, primarily between oceanfront landowners and local governments—in particular the centuries-old Town Trustees boards in both Southampton and East Hampton towns—and the rules they enforce, ostensibly to protect the public’s ability to access the beach.

A recent legal watershed of four lawsuits that are either pending or were recently adjudicated—in the favor of the landowners in all three instances—outline some of the many threats access rights advocates say face the beaches of the South Fork as we know them, and the Trustees’ ability and authority to protect access to them. Last week, court rulings effectively cast aside two long-accepted regulatory notions in Southampton Town. Critics of the rulings say they pose a theoretical threat to the long-term survival of the ocean beaches themselves.

In East Hampton Town, the threat is a bit more visceral: In one instance, a homeowner claimed ownership of a small portion of beach in front of his house; in the other, which is still pending, a group of dozens of Amagansett homeowners are laying claim to a broad stretch of beach, nearly a mile long, and are seeking to restrict public use of it.

There is another side to the coin. The attorneys representing the oceanfront homeowners—the same Riverhead law firm, Esseks Hefter and Angel, has represented the side challenging the Trustees or other local authority in all four cases—say that in the three cases with rulings issued, the legal history and grounds for the decisions in their favor are very clear, fair and pose no threat to anyone’s ability to use the region’s prized beaches.

The East Hampton cases, one of which was decided in favor of the homeowner last month, are really more about title disputes than environmental dynamics. In Southampton, the cases focused on the historical and legal basis of local government authority but are cast by the opposing sides as a struggle between right and wrong assumptions when it comes to the fluid, and very arguable, dynamics of the south-facing Atlantic Ocean shoreline on Long Island.

On May 9, a state judge ruled that the Southampton Town Trustees do not, as they have claimed for decades, have the authority to regulate the placement of structures on or under the ocean beach to protect their homes in the event of severe erosion during major storms, at least within village boundaries. The challenge, actually two separate but parallel lawsuits, to the Trustees’ authority came from the Quogue Village government and a pair of its oceanfront homeowners who flouted the Trustees decades-old policy of not allowing such protection efforts when storm erosion threatened homes and the village’s public beach. The Trustees claim the structures pose a threat over many years—decades, at least, and possibly centuries—that they will prevent the dry beach area from gradually migrating northward as sea levels rise, and eventually it will disappear. In order to protect the public’s ability to access the beaches, the Trustees say, they must limit hardening structures.

“The Trustees have succeeded for a long time to make people think they had more powers than they actually do,” said Nica Strunk, the attorney from Esseks Hefter and Angel who argued both the Southampton Town cases against the Trustees. “You can’t have regulatory power based on a history of deference—that’s one of the arguments they made in that case: ‘Oh, we’ve been doing this a long time.’ That’s not enough.”

Ms. Strunk added that the Trustees presented no evidence in their arguments that the protective sandbags used in Quogue posed any negative impact on the public’s right to access the beach.

The court’s ruling sided with the evidence Ms. Strunk presented at trial, that the Trustees’ right to regulate the beach was stripped by the State Legislature in the early 1800s.

“Those structures present a threat to the easement along the beach, and the judge says we don’t have the right to protect against that threat,” Trustees President Eric Shultz said. “If that’s the case, there might be no easement at all, some day.”

In the other Southampton case, a Sagaponack homeowner seeking to build a new house where a ramshackle cottage now sits amid the dunes, challenged a Sagaponack Village law that said new homes must be built 130 feet landward of the dunes. The village did not even contest the lawsuit, and the law was cast aside by the case judge on the basis that, as the plaintiff’s argued, the local law overreached the authority of the local government to regulate in the area. The case also raised doubts about whether a similar law that applies to all of Southampton Town’s coastline is overreaching also.

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Great article Mr. Wright. Thanks.

Regarding the Town of Southampton, this paragraph would seem to be critical (near the bottom of p. 1):

"The court’s ruling sided with the evidence Ms. Strunk presented at trial, that the Trustees’ right to regulate the beach was stripped by the State Legislature in the early 1800s."

This very narrow legal question (ignoring all other legal questions, and also ignoring various factual issues such as whether sand bags are a risk, ...more
By PBR (4852), Southampton on May 23, 12 1:37 PM

Here I thought the real reason was the bountiful harvest.

Well, I guess it depends on your definitino of "harves"...
By Mr. Z (10032), North Sea on May 24, 12 12:55 AM
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