East Hampton Town has been ordered by a New York State court to prohibit all vehicles from using the stretch of Amagansett beach known as “Truck Beach” under any circumstances.
The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division declared in February that the beach is privately owned by homeowners of the adjacent residential neighborhood, but had allowed the caveat that the public could continue to access the land for fishing and fishing related purposes.
Last weekend, East Hampton Town posted signs at either end of the 4,000-foot stretch of beach that said vehicles were still allowed to use the beach, but only for fishing and fishing-related purposes.
The homeowners’ said that they believe the ruling should not allow any vehicles at all, and their attorneys asked the court to clarify the ruling.
On Friday, the court issued an injunction threatening members of the East Hampton Town Trustees and East Hampton Town with criminal contempt of court if they did not impose a complete ban of vehicles on the beach.
“The [town and Town Trustees] are hereby ordered to prohibit and prevent any and all driving and/or parking on the beaches owned by the plaintiff homeowners associations,” the order to show cause reads.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said on Saturday that the town would be removing the signs posted last week and posting Marine Patrol units at the Marine Boulevard beach access to inform 4×4 owners that the beach is no longer accessible for the time being.
But the supervisor said there is still some question about how the town is supposed to enforce a no driving or parking prohibition beyond simply saying it is not allowed.
“Are we being asked to enforce parking restrictions on private property, which I don’t think we can do?” he said. “Obviously, we don’t want to be in contempt, so for the moment we are going ask people not to drive or park in this area, but if they chose to do it anyway I’m not sure what more we can do.”
Town officials have also pointed to legal debate over whether coastlines, which erode and accrete with the tides and storms, can even be considered “property” in the real property sense that can be owned privately.
The two sides are due in court again on June 17 to make their respective cases for how the court order should be enforced by the town.
Jim Catterson, one of the attorneys who handled the Truck Beach case for the homeowners, said that the town’s hedging about to what extent it is responsible for restricting traffic to the beaches is “fantasy.”
“It’s utterly preposterous,” Mr. Catterson said. “The town has to be proactive. The town must prohibit people from driving on the beach. If they don’t, they are violating the [restraining order] and that is criminal contempt. If they don’t stop them, they have a problem and I’ll be back in court.”
The town and four property owners associations that represent the dozens of homes just over the dunes from the beach in question have been locked in a legal struggle for going on 13 years — with no end in sight.
The homeowners claimed that the beach was included in the 1882 purchase of the land on which their homes are now built and that the town was neglecting its duty to protect residents’ health and well being by allowing the beach to be used by vehicles during the day in summer when other beaches are closed to vehicles from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
After a trial, a state judge ruled in the town’s favor in 2016, but the appellate court threw out the ruling this winter. The town is now pursuing a further appeal of its own and had asked that the most recent ruling be stayed, allowing the use of the beach by vehicles, but was denied.
The town has also said that if it ultimately loses the court battle, it will seek to use a municipality’s power of eminent domain to force the sale of the beach to the town for public benefit. Doing so would require that the town pay the property owners a fair value for the land being seized — an amount that would be determined in court.
“My own personal opinion is that we need to take every step necessary in order to ensure our traditional beach access rights … and I’m committed to using every possible means to do so,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said during a discussion with other members of the Town Board on Tuesday. “But in the interim, I’m asking that you just be patient and comply until we get further clarification and can chart our next step.”