The East Hampton Town Trustees’ new lawsuit over a stone sea wall being put in at Georgica Beach is among the most important developing stories to have come along in some time. In it, we may be seeing a glimpse of what is ahead here as sea level rise and erosion pit private interests against the public’s three and a half centuries’ of assurances that the beaches are theirs to use.
In short form, the dispute is over the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals and appointed officials handing a permit for the sea wall to a property owner whom the village itself had previously fought in court over a similar grab at Georgica Beach. Attorneys hired by the town trustees brought suit last week to block the project — though work got under way, suspiciously, on Monday when public officials had time off for Veterans Day.
The trustees’ argument centers on the point that the original 1902 deed to the property, which is now owned by Mollie Zweig, describes its southern boundary as the general line of beach grass. Now that the beach grass ends atop a 15-foot bluff, the trustees say, the sea wall and related excavation going on now is actually on the public beach. In a fascinating wrinkle, they say that a precedent from another recent case supporting the beach grass definition of a waterfront property line cements their claim that the project is, in fact, not even in East Hampton Village’s jurisdiction at all, but is on town trustee land.
Ms. Zweig’s lawyers have yet to file a formal answer, but in previous statements they have said, in error in our view, that because the loss of dune was caused by Hurricane Sandy, the land remains hers. It is an unconvincing position not supported in law, the trustees will counter, and anyway, erosion on that section of beach has been well documented back to the mid-20th century at least.
In a similar matter, the trustees have taken on the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals over a Mulford Lane project at Lazy Point, for which approval was granted without their consent. As we have said before, the trustees are emerging as the true defenders of the public’s cherished right to go to and enjoy East Hampton’s beaches.
It is regrettable that different branches of local government are at loggerheads in this way and, as a consequence of trustee authority being illegally ignored, unnecessarily spending taxpayer money on litigation that could have been avoided. From here on out, officials in Village Hall and on Pantigo Road must work harder to include the trustees in deliberating all applicable applications. The trustees have longstanding tradition, and, it appears, the law on their side. The earlier they are fully brought into the process the better.