Trustees Push Back on Beach Driving

As town board targets hand-me-down permits

While pledging to await East Hampton Town Trustee opinion before taking action, the members of the East Hampton Town Board, at a work session on Feb. 7, were generally in favor of amending the town code regulations on beach driving, as outlined by Michael Sendlenski, the town attorney. On Monday, however, when the trustees, who have jurisdiction over most of the beaches in town, discussed the proposal, they decided, in turn, to confer with others before taking a stand. Some of the trustees were in favor of the town’s proposal; others were adamantly opposed to it, fearing a slippery slope that could result in the loss of beach-driving privileges.

As the law stands now, resident permits are free and have no expiration date; nonresident permits expire on Dec. 31 each year and cost $275. The revelation that more than 30,000 resident beach-driving permits have been issued since 2000, a number that is greater than the town’s population, sparked the town board’s discussion. The stickers, which are affixed to four-wheel-drive vehicles, were last updated in 2000.

“It’s time we make a change,” Town Councilman Fred Overton, who previously was town clerk, said at the Feb. 7 meeting. New stickers were issued in 2000 in an attempt to avoid nonresidents’ acquiring them when buying a vehicle with a sticker issued to a resident. “If you sell to a private owner, he’s not going to scrape that sticker off. He’s going to take advantage of it and use it whether he’s eligible for it or not,” Mr. Overton said.

An amendment to the town code has apparently been under discussion for some time. The proposed code amendment drafted by Mr. Sendlenski provides for annual resident permits to expire on Feb. 1 of the following year. But Carole Brennan, the town clerk, said a Jan. 1 expiration date would be more workable, both for her office and for enforcement officers. “We can make that change,” Mr. Sendlenski said.

Board members, however, preferred a longer term, and Ms. Brennan agreed. “You could say five years. What would happen in five years is the color would change,” she said, referring to the idea of color-coding the stickers so that marine patrol and enforcement officers could easily recognize whether they are valid.

There are three options, Supervisor 30,000 permits out there and try to shorten the time frame so that permits are issued more frequently. . . . Or, you simply void all permits outstanding, and issue the permits for a period of time.” Permits could expire in three or five years, or at a time to be determined. “It’s really a question of what’s the best way to administer these,” he said.

A term longer than one year would be easier on the clerk, Mr. Overton said, suggesting three years. Ms. Brennan agreed that an annual permit “is definitely going to add more work when everybody has to come in and get it,” but she said she would defer to the board. “If it’s five years, that’s good with me, too,” she said.

An amendment would be unlikely to take effect before 2018, Mr. Cantwell said, and he repeated the assurance that the trustees’ opinion would be sought.

 One had already spoken out. Diane McNally, who was formerly the clerk of the trustees, criticized the proposed legislation at the town board session, calling it “fuel for the fire of those who seek to limit access to beaches.”

Ms. McNally continued that line of attack at the trustees’ meeting Monday, referring to parallel lawsuits in which private property owners on Napeague had sought to establish ownership of two stretches of the ocean beach that are popular among a group of residents who drive and park there. The town and the trustees won the lawsuits last year, but the plaintiffs apparently are considering an appeal, while the trustees are facing ongoing, similar lawsuits.

“If we start from square one,” she asked her colleagues, “what is going to be that magic number . . . when the anti-beach-vehicle folks say you’ve issued too many? That has always been the problem.”

Every resident “should have access to that beach,” Ms. McNally said. “I would urge you, think about this very carefully, get some data. We just won the beach case. Why are we going backwards here?”

The trustees agreed to seek opinions from user groups and the public before taking a position.