East Hampton Town Board members responded vehemently, and a Republican Party leader lamented a lack of decorum, after two Amagansett residents, both prominent Democratic Party members, pressed the board at its meeting last Thursday about its response to a lawsuit that could privatize a stretch of Napeague beach.
“Some in the town . . . would like to approach things from a very negative basis,” said Trace Duryea, the chairwoman of the town Republican Committee, in her turn at the microphone.
The town board has neither mentioned nor discussed the lawsuit at any of its recent public meetings, although a request for an immediate judgment banning all but emergency vehicles from a 4,000-foot stretch of ocean beach is pending before a State Supreme Court justice. The judge is also to decide whether the beach is owned by the East Hampton Town Trustees on behalf of the public, as has been assumed for more than 300 years, or if it is privately owned, as the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit was filed in 2009 against both the town trustees and the town board by a number of Napeague property owners disturbed by heavy use of the ocean beach there by owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles, some of whom drive onto and park on the beach for all-day outings.
Betty Mazur and Jeanne Frankl, who chairs the town Democratic Committee, appeared before the board at the meeting to express their concern about the public access that is at stake, and to ascertain what the town is doing to protect citizens’ traditional rights.
“The largest jewel in the crown of East Hampton may be stolen from us, the citizens of East Hampton,” Ms. Mazur said to the board at the meeting, referring to the ability for residents to traverse all of the town’s waterfront stretches. “I’m very nervous about it, because I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to stop the robbers or the thieves — I’m talking about the group of landowners on Napeague who are looking to control a [long] stretch of our incredible beach, and that of course is the jewel in the crown.”
“It’s terrifying when you consider the precedent that may be set if these homeowners succeed. I’m concerned because I have not heard any signs of anxiety or excitement or any form of leadership from this board,” she added.
That is rightly so, said Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who is an attorney. “We don’t discuss lawsuits publicly. We are fully aware of the issue and are working behind the scenes with the attorneys every day. There are significant fact questions.”
“I don’t think there is anyone more supportive, more concerned, more passionate about beach fires, fishing, and beach driving,” said Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson.
But, he said, the East Hampton Town Trustees have jurisdiction over the stretch of beach in question. “There is nobody that is more understanding of the jurisdictions of the government in East Hampton,” he said. “We respect their independence. We respect their accountabilities.”
“I think you’ll find that we respect jurisdictions. This is a trustee case that is on their table, and we will wait respectfully for their request to sit down with us.”
Ms. Mazur urged the board to be “proactive” and to communicate with the trustees about the case. “Even though it may not be strictly your jurisdiction, there is a responsibility,” she said.
“You are assuming there hasn’t been communication,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
According to Ken Silverman, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who spoke at the meeting, its aim is not to restrict pedestrian access to the beach. It grew out of a frustration, he said, that “these beaches have been treated differently than all the beaches during daytime hours.”
The East Hampton Town Code specifies several areas in the town where beach driving is allowed, including during the daytime in the summer, but access to these is through restricted areas, which vehicles may not traverse between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from the Thursday before Memorial Day until Sept. 15.
“The important thing is not to lose the access, not to lose the ownership — above and beyond how you regulate the use of trucks and other things,” Ms. Frankl told the board. “What I don’t understand is why this board has not been a voice,” she continued.
“We as a board indeed take this very seriously,” Ms. Quigley said. “It’s engraved in all of us, the right we have to the beaches and to the sea, and all of it.”
“What I am interested in knowing is what is being done,” Ms. Frankl said. “I think you hold the idea of litigation too close to the vest,” she told the board. “I’ve been in government; I’ve been a litigator. Usually the people know who the lawyers are, what their position is, what the papers are that are being filed, and how they can see them.”
“This board has been exaggerating its rights under the Open Meetings Law. I don’t think it’s true that the public does not get to hear how strongly you’re defending, what your position is,” she said. “We are the citizens, and you are responsible to us in this regard.”
She cited a previous comment by Mr. Wilkinson that the public will not be apprised of 99 percent of what he or other board members do. “That’s not okay,” Ms. Frankl said.
“I can only add that this is my 27th straight day,” the supervisor told her. “You’re not going to hear everything. You’re not going to be able to keep up with it.”
Because the board has not issued information to the public on the lawsuit, or discussed it in an open forum, both Ms. Frankl and Ms. Mazur said, the only way they have been able to learn about it is through stories in the press.
Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley both expressed the opinion that the information in news stories cannot be trusted.
Ms. Mazur’s and Ms. Frankl’s comments unleashed a lengthy, heated response from Ms. Quigley. She accused the two speakers of “making this our problem” and “making it a political issue.”
“I would really like to have a change in this town,” said Ms. Duryea, the Republican Committee chairwoman. “We may disagree, but I don’t like the attacks. I don’t like the personalization. I don’t like the politicization of situations that occur. Let’s maintain some sort of decorum.”
“I don’t much appreciate the invictus or the slander and libel that we’ve heard here tonight, and I take it very, very seriously,” Mr. Silverman said to the board, apparently referring to Ms. Mazur’s comment that a jewel in the crown of East Hampton “may be stolen.”
Dominick Stanzione, a town board member elected in 2009 along with Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley on the Republican ticket, said he was “disappointed at the rhetoric that was exchanged earlier,” and apologized to Mr. Silverman on behalf of the board. “I’m very, very proud of the personal interest and leadership that Bill [Wilkinson] has provided on this,” he said.
According to New York State Board of Election records, Mr. Silverman contributed $2,050 to the East Hampton Town Republican Committee in the last quarter of 2010, almost a quarter of the $8,535 total in donations that the committee received.