The New York State Supreme Court has not yet ruled in the lawsuits brought by oceanfront property owners on Napeague against both East Hampton Town and its town trustees, but the town board’s perceived wishy-washy response to calls for its commitment to public beach access is causing concern and stirring the pre-election political pot.
The question at the heart of the lawsuits, filed in 2009, is whether a 4,000-foot strip of beach from Napeague Lane east to Napeague State Park will remain public or be privatized.
CfAR, an acronym for Citizens For Access Rights, was formed in the wake of the two lawsuits. Members accuse the town board of failing to make a formal alliance with the town trustees and to protest more strongly against the privatizing of beaches.
Except in Montauk, the trustees own, on behalf of the public, beaches, bottomland, and some roads, based upon pre-Revolutionary writs given to East Hampton settlers by King James II of England. There are, however, sections of town where the trustees sold off their interest. Plaintiffs in the beach suit claim the 4,000-foot-long stretch on Napeague is one of them; lawyers for the town and the trustees dispute this.
Concern that the town board might be caving in to pressure from the plaintiff property owners by staging a lackluster defense was sparked as long ago as March, before CfAR existed, during a meeting between Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and his deputy, Councilwoman Teresa Quigley, with concerned beachgoers.
Tim Taylor, now CfAR’s president, said they had been heartened during an earlier meeting with the town trustees. “They expressed a strong position. They were very forceful in their defense of public access,” he said.
Mr. Wilkinson’s and Ms. Quigley’s “tune was different” in a subsequent meeting, said Mr. Taylor. “They said they were not sure the case was winnable, and basically said the board would have to consider a compromise or settlement, that they would need to explore that angle a little more.”
“They also told us the trustees knew that it was not a winnable case. That’s when we decided we would need to form a group both to educate the public [that there were two lawsuits, not just one] and to have a movement behind protecting beach access.”
Mr. Taylor said the meeting with the two town board members coincided with the plaintiffs’ move for summary judgment. Such a ruling would have closed the beach to the public at the start of the summer.
“It seemed like an imminent threat. It’s why we started meeting.”
In a letter to The Star’s editor that will run in next week’s edition, CfAR lays out the history of its attempts to have the town board pass a sense-of-the-board resolution supporting the trustees’ position in no uncertain terms.
At times, CfAR worked with the trustees to arrive at language acceptable to both boards. Both the town board and the trustees have discussed how to best defend the suits in closed-door executive sessions, but sources say attorneys for each body are on the same page in arguing for the public’s right to access.
In April, CfAR drafted wording for a resolution and presented it to the town board. “We were told they couldn’t pass it because of concerns over possible conflicts [with the trustees] over jurisdiction, and about money. They didn’t want to give money to the trustees for the defense,” Mr. Taylor said.
“We made revisions, but the [town] board wouldn’t work with us. We presented another resolution in August. Still nothing back. On Sept. 17 we sent board members a letter by certified mail, with a deadline to respond to our resolution by Oct. 1.”
Mr. Taylor said the date was chosen as an accommodation to the town board, to keep the issue out of election politics. “We said that with the election nearing, we would like to see in writing your support for the [defense of the] lawsuit, and for public access.”
Mr. Taylor said the letter was received and signed for by a public official. In addition, each member of the town board was sent a letter, and a phone call was made before the Oct. 1 deadline to get a response. “They said they never received the letter. That’s why we wrote a letter to the editor. They had a chance to approve something [on Tuesday] and didn’t do it. Anything from here on out is just to get votes,” Mr. Taylor said yesterday.
During Tuesday’s informal town board meeting, Julia Prince and Dominic Stanzione, board members, attempted once again to gain the support of the supervisor’s and deputy supervisor’s support for the CfAR resolution.
John Jilnicki, town attorney, assured Mr. Wilkinson that CfAR’s draft did not raise jurisdictional concerns.
“I support access to and use of non-private beaches, but I think that the resolution somehow implies that we haven’t been doing anything,” Ms. Quigley said. “This says we’ll support the trustees, but doesn’t say we’ll support our obligations to our constituents. The town’s position is parallel to the trustees’, but I’d like to see it more fleshed out. I’d like to have it be more strong about us defending our obligations.”
“There’s no doubt it’s getting into the political season for this crap,” Mr. Wilkinson said, adding that he himself had been fishing on the beach with his dog and his truck. “To say we are not embracing not just driving, but full access to beaches, is just plain silly.”
“This has been before us since April, just to take the whole political season out of the equation. It’s just asking that we support a pledge, and I think we should,” said Councilwoman Prince.
Her effort may have come too late. CfAR’s letter to the editor concludes, “CfAR will view any further belated attempt by the town board to address our resolution as political theater.”
In a related matter, the town trustees agreed during their Tuesday night meeting that plans, already discussed by the town board, to create a new bathing beach on Napeague — accessed from Montauk Highway via Dolphin Drive — should not go forward until the Napeague beach suit is concluded.