Vorpahl Gives a History Lesson

Former trustee insists village zoning board of appeals erred in Zweig case

       Pointed criticism of the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals punctuated what had been a very brief and uneventful meeting on Friday.

       The rebuke, delivered by Stuart Vorpahl, a fisherman and former East Hampton Town trustee, concerned Mollie Zweig’s half-built rock revetment on the beach in front of her West End Road property. The board had granted Ms. Zweig’s application to construct the revetment, and to remove an existing stone groin, restore an eroded dune with 4,000 cubic yards of sand, plant beach grass, and install sand fencing, on Oct. 11. Work began on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

       The trustees took strong exception to the project, claiming that most if not all of it would be happening on land under their jurisdiction. Their attorney, David Eagan, won a temporary restraining order in State Supreme Court on Nov. 13, halting construction. A hearing on the matter was to have been held there yesterday.

       “Have any of you people actually read the charter that created the Village of East Hampton?” Mr. Vorpahl asked the members of the zoning board.

       “Yes, of course we have,” answered Frank Newbold, the chairman. Ownership of the land was not what had been at issue, he said. “If you read the resolution . . . what it states is that we give our approval and it is subject to any other permissions that the homeowner may need, which, obviously, we now appreciate is the trustees.”

       Linda Riley, the village attorney, broke in. “I’m not disagreeing with anything you just said,” she told Mr. Newbold, “except that the jurisdiction of the village and the ownership of the underlying property is all a topic of the litigation. This board has no authority to determine that one way or the other. It’s in the courts, where it belongs.”

       “That’s why I’m here,” said Mr. Vorpahl, who was a trustee for 12 years beginning in 1977. He drew a parallel between the Zweig project and a developer’s effort, in the early ’80s, to build a hotel and bulkhead at Duck Creek, off Three Mile Harbor in Springs. “East Hampton Town Trustees had to sue the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals,” Mr. Vorpahl said, “because they gave permission to the developer to dig it all up. It cost the East Hampton Town Trustees a lot of money. And when we got to Riverhead court — I was clerk of the trustees at the time — one of the questions that was raised to me directly [was], ‘What is going on in East Hampton, where one branch of East Hampton Town government has to sue the other branch?’ ”

       The Duck Creek project was halted and abandoned.

       “Your charter states this: Your southerly boundary is the southerly edge of the beach grass line,” Mr. Vorpahl continued. “What you should have done, which would save the town government and the taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars, was to say, ‘Our boundary is the southerly edge of beach grass.’ You have no say beyond that. Yet a lot of taxpayers’ money now is going to be thrown up a rope to straighten out what is obvious.”

       Ms. Zweig’s attorney, Stephen Angel, had argued in a September hearing that Hurricane Sandy and subsequent storms last year had caused avulsion, not erosion, on the beach. Unlike erosion, he said, avulsion does not affect title to property.

       “It was understood in this town from the beginnings that the high water mark is the southerly edge of the beach grass line,” Mr. Vorpahl repeated, at least until the mid-1960s, when, he said, “we started having trouble trying to work on the beach.” Fishermen would “just about get the [seine] net ashore,” he said, when “somebody would come flying over the dunes screaming and hollering at us that we are on their property, because when that real estate agent sold that person that piece of dune land, they sold them the beach, too. They sold the public land.”

       Commercial fishermen having a saying, he told the board. “When a real estate agent wants to really make the sale, they will tell that prospective property owner, ‘You also own a slot of land all the way to Portugal.’ ” 

       “Sadly, not true,” Mr. Newbold said, as he and his colleagues laughed.

       “Unfortunately, it’s still going on,” Mr. Vorpahl said.

       Mr. Newbold thanked him for his comments. “We all look forward to hearing what the court has to say,” he said.

       Mr. Vorpahl delivered one more message as he walked away from the lectern. “Remember: Portugal!”