Where Beach Goes, It Becomes Public

    To the unfamiliar eye, metal pipes driven into the sand and tied together with rope in a rough rectangle at Georgica Beach in East Hampton might not look like much, but they represent a new and aggressive front in the war over control of the ocean shoreline, creating another big headache for town and village officials who are supposed to be looking out for the interests of the community as a whole.
    In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irene’s approach to Long Island and eventual impact here as a tropical storm, many oceanfront property owners saw much of their dunes eaten away. One family, however, was not willing to accept the conventional wisdom — and the law — that once upland becomes beach, it becomes public. They opted to fence in what they believed was still their property, having the pipes driven deep by a contractor without first seeking or obtaining permits. If so, this would make the work illegal and in violation of town trustee, village, and state law.
    Metes and bounds descriptions of property lines may vary from place to place, but in law and in many — but not all — deeds, it is understood that the right of passage even across privately held beaches cannot be blocked. Nevertheless, an increasing number of property owners here and in Southampton Town have challenged the public use of what they see as theirs alone based on such deeds. The East Hampton Town Trustees, who set policy for the beaches and own parts of them, as well as the town board, are, in fact, ramping up a legal defense in a suit brought by two sets of oceanfront landowners who are seeking to assert what they believe is their right of control.
    At Georgica, a village beach, sand returns naturally more often than not, thanks, it would appear, to the long, perpendicular jetty just to the west. However, erosion from Irene left the shore low and flat, and at high tide, someone, a surfer, for example, would be unable to walk dry shod to the jetty unless he or she ducked under the newly fenced property, ignoring the no-trespassing signs. Regardless of where the property owner believes his land to be, this would appear to be a violation of the public’s right of passage.
    Predictions are that erosion will increase in the coming decades as a result of sea-level rise. This means that disagreements of this kind with oceanfront property owners will become much more frequent. It is important for the village and town to do everything in their power to be sure that legal precedents are set in the public’s favor.
    With high ocean swells from Hurricane Katia expected today, nature may already be reminding us just who has the highest authority along the shoreline. It is up to elected officials to use the law and the courts to assure that access for the public is unimpeded.