Beach Driving Sees Changes

Over some objection during last Thursday’s public hearing, and one nay vote among five, the East Hampton Town Board amended the town code to change the permitting scheme for driving on beaches. A related change to parking at beaches was unanimously approved. 

The new laws require residents to obtain new permit stickers for parking and driving on beaches next year. Permits will be valid for five years; in the future, they will expire on Dec. 31 in years ending in 5 and 0. 

Current stickers issued for parking and driving on beaches do not expire. Members of the board, mindful that more than 30,000 such permits have been issued, have voiced the concern that many vehicles bearing current permits were subsequently sold to nonresidents, who would not be authorized to use them. The town trustees, who manage common lands, including beaches, on behalf of the public, supported the board’s plan to implement a new permit scheme. 

Color-coded beach vehicle permits  will become available later this year, become mandatory in 2020, and expire in 2025. A fee schedule for nonresident permits is to be voted on at the board’s meeting on Tuesday. The board has emphatically stated that permits will remain free for residents.

Another change to the code requires that those operating a vehicle on the beach be equipped with a fire extinguisher, along with the tow rope or chain, jack, and spare tire already required. 

Councilman David Lys voted against the beach driving amendment. The town, he told his colleagues, should wait to enact any changes to regulations until an appeal of a lawsuit, waged by a group of Napeague residents opposed to beach driving on the shore near their neighborhood and the summertime gathering of vehicles at a 4,000-foot-long strip of sand popularly known as Truck Beach, has been resolved. 

Lawsuits brought by Seaview at Amagansett Ltd., et al., and White Sands Motel Holding Corp., the latter concerning a 1,500-foot stretch in front of the White Sands Resort Hotel, asserted that the beaches in question belonged to those entities. The plaintiffs sought to portray a dangerous environment with hundreds of vehicles weaving through crowds and children at play, and people and dogs urinating and defecating in the dunes, posing a threat to public health and the environment. A June 2016 trial was decided in favor of the town and the trustees, co-defendants in the lawsuits. 

Town officials had been planning eminent domain proceedings had the plaintiffs prevailed, resolving to condemn a total of just over 22 acres of shorefront between the mean high water mark and the toe of sand dunes making up the two parcels. Last Thursday, Mr. Lys worried aloud that the beach driving amendments might interfere with condemnation efforts, should the plaintiffs’ appeal be successful. 

During the public hearing, Diane McNally, a former longtime clerk of the trustees, begged the board not to act. “No one who likes to go on the beach with a vehicle has ever wondered about ‘How many permits have we issued,’ ” she said. “The only concern about the number of vehicles that might have permits on them has been raised by those who oppose the vehicles on the beach. To change your code right now, before this question of ownership is finally answered, will only add fuel to the fire for those who are appealing.” 

It is the role of code enforcement officers, Ms. McNally said, to ensure that beach driving permits are valid. “If this is a serious problem, let’s make that documentation, the number of fines, public knowledge,” she said. “I don’t think it is.”

The bigger issue, she said, is the plaintiffs’ appeal. “That lawsuit has got to be finished, there has to be an answer one way or the other, who owns that beach. I don’t want to see that jeopardized in the future.”