Sunday was as perfect a summer day at the beach in East Hampton as one might have a right to expect, although rights and expectations can vary according to one’s point of view.
For the mostly local families who gather on a portion of Napeague’s ocean beach, a perfect summer day might well involve driving along the strand to a sandy retreat they have known for much of their lives.
For a number of oceanfront homeowners, a perfect summer day would include a view of the glistening Atlantic without a mile-long reef of parked vehicles obscuring an otherwise pristine beach.
On Sunday afternoon, Brian Anderson was letting some air out of the tires on his pickup and joked with Brendon Mott, a passenger. Both were eager to get going off the Marine Boulevard road-end and onto the beach.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 2. Sometimes I stay from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s a local tradition. When I have kids I hope I can bring them here,” Mr. Anderson said.
On the beach that locals refer to as “truck beach,” Jason Hren sat under an umbrella beside his pickup, emerald green waves breaking in front of him, white water rushing up to within a few yards of his blanket. His daughter Emma, 6, and son Michael, 3, played nearby.
“I’ve been coming here for over 10 years, since I graduated from high school,” Mr. Hren said, looking over his shoulder at the dune behind the line of vehicles and family encampments. “I don’t see the problem. We’re not blocking anyone’s view. Our kids are part of this community. It’s the most beautiful upbringing anyone can have.”
Mr. Hren and many of the people on truck beach are members of a new group called Citizens for Access Rights, CfAR, which supports the town trustees’ efforts to keep the beach public.
Marc Helie sees it differently. He lives on the ocean off Whaler’s Lane with a clear view of the weekend parade of vehicles. He said the number of vehicles had increased dramatically since he bought his house in 1994. “It didn’t use to be crowded. It’s the popularity of the S.U.V. You need four-wheel drive. Back then, very few people owned them. There were very few trucks. You hardly noticed them at first. Really in the last 10 years, we’ve seen a real change.”
The homeowners’ perspective has generated a lawsuit in State Supreme Court, with seven community associations and one motel going after East Hampton Town and the town trustees.
The plaintiffs claim that the trustees’ sale of Napeague land in the 1800s gives them ownership of the beach down to the mean high tide line, giving them the right to keep vehicles off the beach. They say the number of four-wheel-drive vehicles has grown in recent years, with an accompanying number of problems. The town argues that the beach from the bay or ocean landward to the toe of the dunes has always been used as commonage, with an implied easement, if not outright ownership, old deeds notwithstanding.
The section of Napeague in question is a 4,000-foot stretch from Napeague Lane east to Napeague State Park.
Still pending is a request for a summary judgment that the homeowners filed in April. If the decision goes their way, homeowners say they will close the beach to vehicles.
Mr. Helie said the glut of off-road vehicles on the beach was compounded by the limited amount of parking in town beach parking lots. “People are frustrated and they see no alternatives. The town and town trustees have not added additional space. It gets very crowded.”
Two weeks ago, Napeague Beachowners Inc., an organization that claims 120 members and between 500 and 600 pedestrian beachgoers, ran a full-page advertisement stressing safety in The East Hampton Star. The ad said that blocking public access to the beach was not the goal and that the town and beach drivers had preferable alternatives.
“Aesthetics are a minor part,” Mr. Helie said. “The biggest problem is the fact that there are no facilities. I often have to pick up human waste on my property. Throughout the day they use my property to urinate.” He listed other complaints such as fires left burning on the beach, “or worse, buried so people burn their feet,” garbage left strewn about, and fireworks at all hours of the night. Mr. Helie said the trustees claimed such behavior was an enforcement matter, “but in talking to the marine patrol, they say they don’t have the manpower, and they have to witness infractions in order to issue summonses.”
“This is not just beachfront owners. Our association has 30 lots with families with young kids,” Mr. Helie said of the Whaler’s Lane Homeowners Association. He added that all-day drinking often led to speeds in excess of the posted 15-mile-per-hour rate. “It’s an accident waiting to happen. I’m sure there are a lot of fine people, but we’re beyond that,” Mr. Helie said.
On Sunday, Roy Dalene was camped with vehicles and friends on the beach, their dogs wet and tired from playing in the surf. He echoed the feelings of Jason Hren. Access to the Napeague oasis as Bonac birthright. “It’s not the locals who don’t clean up after themselves,” he said.
Both sides in the civil war speak passionately about their claim to peace and tranquillity, and they both seem to agree that the lack of parking was one cause of the problem.
“The nearest public lot is a mile and a half away. There is no pedestrian access, so they have to park on the [Montauk] highway. The walkways are private, and they can’t park on the homeowners’ roads,” said John Courtney, the trustees’ attorney, whose family has driven to their weekend oasis for over 25 years.
“You have policeman, firemen, and schoolteachers. It’s mostly a local crowd with a few away people,” Mr. Courtney said.
Is there a solution? The Napeague Homeowners group suggests that the town deliberate with the State Department of Parks to see if East Hampton residents might get access to the Napeague State Park beach to the east. “It’s completely underused. If the town would limit beach driving in our area, they will have tenfold space to the east. Work out a sharing agreement with the state. All it takes is political will,” Mr. Helie said.
Mr. Courtney said the state only issued a certain number of $65 permits for Napeague State Park. He said the idea did not address the use of the beach at the heart of the lawsuit. “The trustees own it. Why give it up?”