The Napeague homeowners who sued the East Hampton Town Trustees and Town Board, claiming they own the beach in front of their houses from the high tide line down to the surf, and that they can, therefore, deny its use by the public, have incited an opinion hurricane, as might have been expected. They also seem to have raised more legal questions than they might have anticipated.
The litigants trace their ownership of the beach to a trustees’ deed selling a swath of Napeague to Arthur Benson, the man who also bought Montauk in 1879. But a lot of sand has washed over (or off, as the case may be) the beach since that time, allowing legal ins and outs to arise.
How about adverse possession? It is a principle of real estate law that allows title to vest in those making use of someone else’s property when they meet specific criteria. The law differs from state to state, but the standards involve the length of time the property was used by someone who didn’t own it and whether the use was consistent, among many others. Is it therefore possible that a group acting on behalf of the public (the people who populate truck beach) can claim adverse possession and overrule private title?
Then there seems to be a tricky matter about an easement; according to a knowledgeable source, the trustees obtained an assurance preserving public access to the beach in the Napeague Lane area at the time the upland was subdivided — a reservation, if you will. In addition, there are questions about whether the surveys showed ownership to mean high water, the common practice at the time. Then again, even if the homeowners’ deeds do show title below the high tide line, there’s the matter of whether they acted as owners of private property over which the public made use by blocking it at certain times, and whether they paid taxes on it.
Although we have encouraged the town to find other places where East Hampton residents who do not live on the water can get on the beach, and although we cannot predict who will prevail, the lawsuit may force the trustees to enact further restrictions on driving on the beaches.
The numbers of those with four-wheeler permits have grown to the point where they outweigh tradition and what the colonial-era town fathers had in mind when they set down the community’s rules and regulations. Conflicts are inevitable now, though court should be the last place to try to solve them. Even so, the trustees may have a few aces up their sleeves. Whether a legal victory will solve the long-term issue of overuse and abate the frustration of oceanfront property owners is an open question.