East Hampton Town is moving to acquire, through eminent domain, disputed beachfront on Napeague. Ownership of the beach is at issue in a lawsuit against the town and the East Hampton Town Trustees by a number of individuals and private property owners who object to driving and parking on the beach in front of their houses and neighborhoods. The lawsuit challenges public ownership of the beach as well as the right of the public to access it.
The town will seek to condemn the beach portion of all the properties in question, according to Michael Rikon of the Manhattan law firm Goldstein, Rikon, Rikon & Houghton, who was hired to lead the effort in a Dec. 18 vote of the town board.
According to New York State law, municipalities may pursue ownership of private land, with just compensation, for a “public purpose.”
“Here there’s a very clear public purpose,” Mr. Rikon, who specializes in eminent domain law, said recently, “allowing the public to use the beach for a public purpose.” He added that there was “no question in my mind.”
In its resolution to hire Mr. Rikon, the town board stated that “the issue of title and the public’s continued access to town’s beaches is of paramount importance to the town and the trustees. . . .”
The property owners’ lawsuit claims that the town trustees ceded approximately 4,000 feet of the Atlantic Ocean beach between Napeague Lane and Napeague State Park to the east in an 1882 deed to Arthur W. Benson, who had bought much of Montauk. That deed contained language reserving a right for townspeople to use the beach to fish. The lawsuit challenges the continued existence of that agreement and also claims that the vehicular use of the beach for recreation exceeds that exemption.
A ruling in the lawsuit in September by Suffolk Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo dismissed the ownership claims to the beach by some of the plaintiffs. He refused to summarily dismiss other owners’ claims, however, pursuant to deeds that describe their property boundaries as extending to the ocean’s mean high water mark, as well as to deeds with property bounds that are in question.
Mr. Rikon said the town would pursue condemnation of the beachfront portions of all of the properties without regard for the outcome of the lawsuit, which is ongoing.
Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said recently that pursuing eminent domain provided a “window of opportunity” to cement public access to the beach. Before the town can move forward with condemnation, however, state law requires a public hearing to be held.