In close to 15 years living full time in East Hampton, I have come to love this community. I can’t think of a nicer place to live or raise a family, despite the fact that other areas might offer a more affordable lifestyle or have fewer people “from away” telling the locals what can and cannot be done. Although 15 years relegates me to being a very recent transplant, my love for our natural environment, endless beaches, and the sport of surfcasting has quickly aligned me with the traditions here and made me want to fight to keep them.
The latest attack on those traditions is an ongoing lawsuit waged by Napeague landowners to wrest a stretch of beach from control of the East Hampton Town Trustees and in turn from public use. The suit brought against both the trustees and the town board has been in the works for nearly two years, yet many of us are just hearing about it now. A judgment is coming down to the wire, and unless there’s some out-of-the-box thinking and quick action, a very dangerous precedent regarding privatization of public beaches may be set.
Six months back, there were rumors about Napeague property owners complaining that beach drivers were speeding in front of their beachfront properties, coming too close to beach users. There were more complaints of noise, beach fires, and dogs walking too close to their properties. At that time I wrote a letter to The Star speaking out against beach privatization. After my letter was printed, I was contacted by News 12 Long Island and interviewed for a short TV story that also included an interview with the attorney for the Napeague property owners.
His statement “We don’t have a problem with people on the beach . . . only vehicles” made me think the suit was focusing mainly on the beach driving issue. But, according to a report in the March 31 Star, the suit may now be largely a “no trespassing” issue.
Was this suit ever really about beach driving? Or was that just a ploy to distract the public from seeing the true agenda? Many now believe that the suit simply amounts to a land grab by a small group of elitists with the aim of increasing the value of their beachfront properties while disenfranchising everyone else.
Just this week we were told the Napeague suit is hinging on obscure records dating back more than 100 years, records that may or may not have validity. Everyone, including the trustees, probably assumed that Napeague was safe under the protection of the Dongan Patent, so it is indeed troubling that after 129 years it’s only now coming to light that a fellow named Benson bought the disputed sand in 1882, which might mean that the trustees actually do not control this particular beach.
If there’s even a chance that this is true, then it’s a travesty that so little information regarding this lawsuit was made available to the beachgoing public. Because surely with more information there would have been a greater uprising earlier on in support of the trustees and other town officials to defend against the lawsuit and to protect beach access — which is for many the primary benefit of living here and, for visitors, a top attraction.
Access to our beaches accounts for millions of dollars spent by visitors in motels, restaurants, shops, gas stations, movie theaters, etc., to say nothing of all the millions spent buying houses. This is an important point, not to be glossed over. Aside from those of us born and raised here and those who have chosen to make their homes here, visiting fishermen, surfers, swimmers, joggers, sunbathers, beachcombers, and countless families enjoy our beaches and contribute to our economy.
Even though the lawsuit now seems to have moved beyond beach driving, as an avid fisherman I’d still like to speak to that specific issue. Beach drivers contribute millions of dollars to local coffers. Fanatical anglers come for 20 or more weekends out of a 34-week fishing season, bringing families and spending a few hundred dollars on each trip. Some buy over $350 worth of beach-driving permits annually and bring buddies along who also spend cash freely. And during the “fall run” fishermen from all over take lengthy vacations here, putting big bucks into the pockets of merchants. Surfers, sea kayakers, and other sports enthusiasts also need vehicle access to beaches and spend plenty of money here.
With regards to safety, after 70 years of beach driving here you’d be hard pressed to find one serious incident in which a beach driver injured a beachgoer!
East Hampton needs to take a page out of Southampton’s book. People there roared like lions when someone attempted to privatize a beach, while in East Hampton, for the most part, we’ve been squeaking like mice.
We need to become a giant squeaky wheel if there’s still time to get the grease that will let us save Napeague. Shouldn’t we be asking for clarification of the issues in this case? Why not a Town Hall meeting, with plenty of advance notification so hundreds of stakeholders could ask questions with the press present? Conjecture is not good, in fact, it’s dangerous, so we need to hear the facts now. How about getting the town board and the trustees together in one room so we can help both bodies act in concert. With anything less than immediate action, this nightmare of beach privatization will become a harsh reality.
Here are just a few questions that should be on the agenda at a Town Hall meeting: Has anyone besides dueling lawyers been speaking or negotiating with the plaintiffs? What is being negotiated, if anything? Is the judge siding with us so far? Can our lawyer win this precedent-setting case without negotiating? What role are the town supervisor and town board playing in this drama, and are they acting in concert with the trustees? If our attorneys can’t win this suit, what other strategies might the town employ to put pressure on the plaintiffs to capitulate?
Several months back, a trustee quoted in The Star mentioned the possibility of having the disputed portion of beach condemned. Would that be a possible last-resort tactic that could serve to lower the value of the plaintiffs’ properties, the threat of which might prompt them to drop their suit or make major concessions?
When a lawyer representing the plaintiffs calls for a no-trespass motion, as reported in The Star, it sounds ominously as if even beach walkers and sunbathers would be prohibited from accessing the sand above the high-water mark, so prepare to get wet!
On Napeague do we allow ourselves to be herded like sheep into restrictive, narrow, and damp areas close to parking lots? Do we encourage a nightmarish precedent that could possibly lead to the loss of additional public beaches in the near future? Wouldn’t we all be ashamed of ourselves if the legacy we passed down to our children and grandchildren were to have allowed the privatization of our town’s beaches?
My October letter to The Star sparked more than 80 phone calls and e-mails from not only concerned fishermen but also, amazingly, from sympathetic non-fishers and non-beach drivers who felt the tradition of riding along the beach to enjoy a family gathering, surf, or enable a disabled person to have a day on the sand was an integral part of what makes the South Fork so special.
Old Mr. Benson, who we are told may have purchased Napeague 129 years ago, has long since been dead and buried. If we could dig him up and magically get him to speak, maybe he’d say, “What kind of curmudgeon do you think I am? Of course I’ll allow my neighbors to walk and drive on my beach.”
In the movie version of this calamity, our lawyer would discover Benson’s great-great-grandson still living here and in possession of a legal document scribbled by his great-great-granddad. Over closing music, we’d hear his dying words granting free beach access to the people. “Let them have their traditions, yes, let them walk, swim, fish, and pull their carts on the beach if that’s what makes them happy.”
But this is not the movie version. East Hampton is at a crossroads. Do we bury our heads in the sand, or do we draw a line in it?