The thing about the suddenly renewed discussion about trucks parked on bathing beaches is that 15 or 20 years ago East Hampton residents would not have been having this debate. But we are, and it is a symptom of an ever-growing summer population that even simple pleasures are now points of friction. Resolving the conflict is the job of town officials, who for the most part, have failed to show leadership in this regard.
As recently as five years back, there were hardly ever any vehicles parked on a now-disputed sliver of sand on the east side of the Three Mile Harbor inlet. Now, on a sunny summer afternoon, trucks line up almost door-to-door after backing down from a paved access road. On Saturday, we saw a pickup truck left parallel to the waterline of the quiet cove, and at dead center. Four people sat nearby in beach chairs at the water’s edge as if they owned the place. For those who oppose vehicles on the beaches, it is a visual and practical blight; for those who like their four-by-fours, it is a cherished right.
Many Americans have a peculiarly powerful relationship with their modes of transportation. Those who suggest that trucks might not belong on a narrow, easily accessible section of waterfront like this and who might argue that new beach limits are in order are sometimes treated as if they are attacking mom, apple pie, and the flag. For those who conflate their sense of identity with what they drive, this can be taken as a personal affront.
The reason some vehicle owners plunk their rigs on the beaches is because they like to: It is pleasant and convenient to drive picnics, chairs, coolers, paddleboards, and what have you right where you want them. To these beholders at least, there is nothing wrong or unsightly about the rows of trucks at the kid-friendly wading spot known as “baby beach” at Three Mile Harbor, or at Little Albert’s Landing in Amagansett, “truck beach” on the ocean on Napeague, or the town nature preserve off East Lake Drive, Montauk.
Yet to the non-car-loving eye, vehicles on the beaches are nuisances that create deep tracks, cause environmental damage, and take up space that would otherwise be used by people. At the disputed Three Mile Harbor site, some people have begun to bring up safety concerns, pointing out that baby beach is not an appropriate place for motorized fun.
Politicians, assuming that the four-wheeler crowd is a powerful November voting bloc, are loathe to upset them, which means that East Hampton Town continues to hand out free, good-for-the-life-of-the-vehicle beach-driving permits, and, therefore, as the population rises, there will be even more trucks on the beaches, not fewer. Beach-driving advocates, fearing a domino effect, are unlikely to see baby beach as an appropriate place to relax their all-or-nothing stance.
The East Hampton Town Trustees, who run most of the town’s beaches, seem to perceive only the tradition of beach driving, collectively failing to see beyond this position when they should be objectively weighing the pros and cons on behalf of all residents. As to the East Hampton Town Board, the current group can hardly agree on how to screw in a lightbulb so we cannot expect any resolution to such a loaded issue there.
There are places where vehicles on the beach during swimming season may be okay, such as at Little Albert’s in Amagansett and perhaps in limited numbers on Napeague, but aside from access for the disabled, there is no convincing argument for the continued use of baby beach at Three Mile Harbor by four-wheelers, nor, frankly, for trucks on the sand along the channel, when there is ample and easy parking a few steps away. A slippery slope it is not; common sense and respect for others it is.
Many of us would like to turn back the clock to a less crowded decade, when we could drive where we wanted and do more or less what we liked. But try as we might, we cannot wave that magic wand. Neither can elected officials continue to hide in the shadows of political expediency, pretending that times have not changed and that some restrictions are not inevitable.