A standing-room-only crowd that spilled over into the hallway descended on East Hampton Town Hall last Thursday night to demonstrate the strength of public support for beach-access rights, and to ask the board to mount a similarly strong defense of those rights. The board, along with the East Hampton Town Trustees, faces two lawsuits filed by property owners on Napeague who claim private ownership of the beach.
Tim Taylor spoke on behalf of the group calling itself Citizens for Access Rights, or CfAR, formed in response to the lawsuit.
Mr. Taylor said members believe that similar challenges to public ownership may arise over other beaches in East Hampton, which are “currently under attack or will be in the future.”
The group, characterized by Mr. Taylor as a “nonpolitical, not-for-profit,” attended the meeting, he said, to stand behind the board and the trustees in their defense against the lawsuits. He was reassured by Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and members of the board that, in the supervisor’s words, “There is no question of the board’s support.”
“There is no question of our support for beaches to remain the way they are,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “There isn’t a weekend that goes by that I’m not driving on the beaches. I believe in dogs on the beaches, I believe in fires on those beaches, and I believe in fishing on those beaches.”
“I am so very pleased to see so many people here tonight to speak to the board,” said Diane McNally, a town trustee, “and to support the trustees and the town board.”
Both the town and the trustees have recently filed legal arguments regarding the lawsuits, which were launched two years ago. The suits focus on the use by beach drivers of a 4,000-foot stretch of sand that the plaintiffs contend they own; the plaintiffs’ arguments are based on an 1882 property sale to Arthur Benson, the developer of Montauk. The principle of public ownership of East Hampton’s beaches was established more than 300 years ago; until the lawsuits came to light, it had been more or less universally assumed that the Napeague beach in question was public property.
Ms. McNally said it would not be judicious to discuss the trustees’ legal arguments publicly. “All I can do is let you know that we’re doing everything we can to this point,” she told the crowd. “And we’re not compromising.” All that can be done at present, she said, is to wait for a decision by the court.
Mr. Taylor, whose comments drew a resounding round of applause, told the board that his group’s mission includes ensuring that “recreational opportunities are open to the greatest number of inhabitants, not just the privileged few.”
“We believe that other beachfront homeowners would like to have the beaches private and that they are watching this lawsuit and the defense of this lawsuit very closely,” he said.
Although plaintiffs in the Napeague lawsuits have expressed frustration over the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles on the Napeague area in question, Jay Blatt, a member of CfAR who was representing the Montauk Surfcasters Association and the New York Coalition of Recreational Fishermen, told the board that he believes the “true agenda” is to weaken the authority of the town trustees, who have claimed ownership of most of East Hampton beaches on behalf of the public since colonial times, and to privatize the beaches and “capitalize on an opportunity to dramatically increase their property values.”
Beach driving, Mr. Taylor noted in his comments, is the “only access to this stretch of beach, and any attempt to disallow or to limit beach driving will be considered giving away our rights to access and enjoy the beaches of East Hampton and will not be supported by our group.”
There are no nearby public parking lots, although there is pedestrian access along the beach.
“By adding a motion of no trespassing to the suit, they are now targeting beach walkers, swimmers, and sunbathers, making this a total access issue,” Mr. Blatt said.
Both Mr. Blatt and Mr. Taylor noted that the use of vehicles on the beach in the area in question has not resulted in any accidents or problems.
“The majority of those who use the beach are local families and residents who treasure and respect the beach and one another,” Mr. Taylor said.
“We have thrown all of our support behind CfAR,” Steven Tekulsky, a director of the East Hampton Sportsmen’s Alliance, told the board. “What is a more valuable asset for preservation . . . than our beaches?” He suggested that, if necessary, use of community preservation fund money to purchase ownership should be considered. In addition, he said, the board should not discount the possibility of using its powers of eminent domain. “Keeping East End beaches public . . . priceless!” he said, parroting an ad campaign.
On behalf of CfAR, Mr. Taylor presented the board with a draft resolution the group would like to see town officials adopt. It outlines a town board pledge to “vigorously defend legal challenges to the traditional right of the public to access and use beaches,” including use of town money to take “whatever steps are necessary,” such as eminent domain, to “insure that the traditional right of all members of the public to continue to access and use beaches for fishing, bathing, and other recreational opportunities will no longer be threatened by efforts to privatize the beach.”
Town Councilwoman Julia Prince said at the meeting that she would recommend the board consider adopting the resolution.