Q&A: Town Trustee Eric Shultz: ‘We’re One Court Case Away From Losing Everything Out Here’

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The "picnic area" in Southampton Village.

It seems impossible, but Eric Shultz, at 66, is quickly approaching a half-century in Southampton Town government.

That’s because, as a junior in high school in 1972, he became one of the first junior members of the town’s Conservation Board. He was one of a handful of teenagers to sign up, but the others all drifted away. Mr. Shultz, on the other hand, stayed, becoming a regular member soon enough.

Eric Shultz

He moved to the Planning Board in 1982, and it was there where he would spend time flipping through the minute books for the Southampton Town Trustees — the oldest elected body in the United States, founded in the 17th century. A researcher at heart, he was fascinated by what he found. “The board is so historical, and there are so many different, crazy little rights that they have, and how this town developed and everything. It really intrigued me.”

Finding the details of the legal fights “intoxicating,” he became the unofficial researcher for the Town Trustees, and its legal team, when he was elected to that board in the mid-1990s. He recently was returned to the board after one term out of office.

“Some people like mysteries. I just like finding things, obscure things, in Trustee records that help the attorneys win the cases,” the East Quogue resident said.

On Friday, Mr. Shultz discussed the Truck Beach ruling affecting nearby East Hampton Town, and how it fits into the larger context of recent rulings about beach access on the East End.

Q: So, Truck Beach — I assume you’ve been following that. You must have some interest in that, just because of how it relates to beach access in general.

Oh, definitely. You know that we have a similar case going on about the Picnic Area [in Southampton Village], which is basically the same thing. It mirrors East Hampton. I’m not sure exactly of what their Benson deed show, but I think they’re basically the same — that it provides for an easement. And what these people were saying that it was, I guess, an enlargement of the easement by allowing parking in front of their houses.

So I was on the phone to our special counsel, Steve Stern, yesterday, as a matter of fact, and he was very alarmed at the ramifications to Southampton Town. So we’re going to have an executive session with him on Monday. It was scheduled anyway, but we’re going to have it on that particular issue after our regular meeting.

[Southampton Town Supervisor] Jay [Schneiderman] and I decided to have a joint Trustee and Town Board meeting and executive session next Thursday [February 11]. So it’s good that this has all been scheduled already and everybody’s on board. So I’m sure that that’ll be the topic of conversation.

Q: In the case of East Hampton Town, and this particular stretch of beach, the Town Trustees actually took ownership of that. And there was a transfer of that ownership. Could that limit the impact on the situation and mean it won’t have the kind of repercussions on your side of town?

I think it’s very similar to our case. … In Southampton Town, everyone who has a beachfront property owns down to the high-water mark. There is an easement that the Trustees hold that was granted through the Best case. And that said that … I don’t have the exact language on it, but it allows for carting of wreckage and other activities that a seaside community enjoys. Carting of seaweed, things like that.

And then the courts are saying now that driving a truck on the beach, you’re not carting seaweed.

Q: So it’s fair to say that in the Truck Beach case, in the Picnic Area case, one of the similarities is that access to the beach by the public is rooted in this idea of the original easements allowing that access for fishing or other traditional purposes, correct?

Right. Right. … This whole issue of people on the beach trying to claim it as their own. … They were asking about what structures were on the beach. And he was telling him how there were poles put up with shades on the top. And people went down there and they asked him, “How about its use as a bathing beach, this particular spot?” We’re talking about right by the Dunes Church. And the answer was: “Till the city people came there, every man who wanted to, built a little shanty and put it on the beach. But after they came, they didn’t think it was suitable to bathe with the country people. And they cleaned them out.”

This was 1890, so …

Q: 1890?

Yeah. It’s been going on for a long time. The Trustees lost the case of claiming that the beach was owned by the townspeople and not the proprietors, because it was used as a road and for other uses. They lost, primarily, in the opinion of a lot of people, because the proprietors sold them out, which was a separate board. And, secondly, they were up against Elihu Root, who was top attorney at that time and in [President Theodore] Roosevelt’s cabinet. They didn’t have a chance in hell.

… So whether the East Hampton Trustees sold their property and retained an easement, we lost our property but we retained an easement. So there’s still the easement question.

… So I don’t know how this affects us yet right now, but the supervisor told me that he is going to reach out to the East Hampton supervisor. And we’ll be discussing this at our joint meeting on Thursday.

Q: Can you put this ruling into the context of the last 10 years or so of court rulings involving the beach front, the town trustees, beach access? Does it fit a pattern?

Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, I mean, even going back to Scott Strough, when our case first came up with the Picnic Area, both of us decided it’s just a matter of time that some misinformed panel of judges is going to rule against us.

We’re one court case away from losing everything out here. They just don’t understand how precious all these rights are out here, and the traditions and everything.

I don’t think we had too much of a problem years ago, because there wasn’t really that much beach driving or beach parking. It’s become very popular, because people don’t want to crowd onto the town beaches. So they want to bring their truck down there and have all this stuff instead of dragging it across the dunes.

Q: And in the case of Truck Beach, one of the interesting things is that’s not a beach that the public can access via a parking lot or anything. If the public wants to go to that beach, they really have to drive onto it to get to it, correct?

Oh, yeah. Exactly. And you have the same situation down in Southampton, where you have the roads between F and G, and then you have all the way down, almost a mile or two of beach, that is basically unaccessible. Who’s going to walk on foot a half-mile to go down to the beach?

… I don’t think that enough beach parking, beach lots have been [created] over the years. And now we’re seeing the results. We’ve seen a surge in four-wheel-drive permits. And they just want to get to the resource, because you can’t … the beach is the last open space that we have out here. You can’t go up in the hills anymore and drive around and up in the woods and things like that. The only open space is the beach.

And it’s basically the economic engine. When you think “the Hamptons,” you think beach, and now it looks like it’s turning into this beach for just the people who can afford it, right?

As someone else put it one time: “Just let me get this straight. We can pump your cesspools, we can mow your lawns — but after 5 o’clock, we’re supposed to go back to our houses and stay in there, and then come back out the next day and pump out your cesspools again. Don’t go on the beach in front of our house. Just stay where you are.”

Yeah.

Q: It’s a class thing?

I think so.

Q: The Truck Beach ruling is really significant on a regional level?

Yes. Yeah. Because you don’t have this in other places. I guess you don’t have the access points in Fire Island as much. And the other areas are controlled by the federal government. This is the only place, I think, on the island where you have beach driving and private property interests at the same time.

… It’s interesting that you have parking in other places like New Smyrna Beach down in Florida, where you have hundreds of cars. Daytona Beach has had parking on the beach. If you go on Google Earth and you go to New Smyrna Beach, you can see, in the pictures, hundreds of cars in a line — and I’ve been down there, and it’s well-regulated. It’s 5 mph. It’s one row deep in some places.

And it co-exists. There are birds walking in between the cars, kids playing, people fishing and everything.

… But I just attribute it to the changing demographics out here. People don’t realize that there’s the traditional uses that we have out there. And it’s shocking to their systems that this would be allowed.

We’ve had a big problem with duck hunting this year, too. There are people out here, now in the wintertime, who have never seen this before. “What was the shooting going on in front of my house?” And they’re going crazy. It’s like dredging — “Oh, my God, there’s a backhoe dredging!” “Yes. This is what happens when you’re not around here.”

Q: So as a resident of the town, whether it’s East Hampton or Southampton, how is this ruling going to affect me going forward? How concerned should residents be? And if they should be concerned, why?

Well, they should be very concerned, because … I view this as a slippery slope. One of the troubling things in that decision, “pass and repass.” This issue has come up a couple of times. I believe that if this thing is upheld, this case is upheld, it will open the door for the next round of cases that is going to basically chip away at that easement. And basically say, “You can pass and repass, even if you’re walking — but you’re not going to put a towel down. You’re not going to sit in front of my beach.”

And it just opens the door. So that’s why it has to be fought so vigorously.

Q: If it’s a strict interpretation of the original easements that were granted, that would be all they would grant — “pass and repass.” That’s the point, right? The danger is that that’s the ruling.

Yes. Yes. It would open the easements for re-interpretation. And I’ve been talking with the supervisor, we were discussing it, and we both came to the conclusion that a lot of these courts, they don’t want to be bothered with the details. They’re so overloaded. This is a very complex situation. We don’t fit in. There’s only two boards in the whole state. We don’t even know what our powers and duties are right now.

And even if we’re right, “Well, I know you’re right, but this is the way we’re going to interpret it.”

… Even a little fire department in the Adirondacks with a broken-down pickup truck has got more rights than the oldest board in the country, who controls billions of dollars worth of real estate. And we still have to beg the Town Board for a couple of hundred thousand here, and they have to maintain roads and things like that. It’s just a bad situation.

Q: East Hampton Town is talking about condemnation as one of its possible options. If so, town officials would have to reimburse the property owners for the value of that beach. How much is that beach worth? A lot of people would say it’s of extremely high value — look at the people who pay all that money to live on it. But you can’t build on it. And if you don’t own that beach, as a property owner, if your house is worth $6 million as an oceanfront property, and suddenly that oceanfront is condemned and becomes public property — I think your house is still worth $6 million because it’s still an oceanfront house. You haven’t lost any value necessarily. I can see both sides of the argument in that, and it’ll be really fascinating to see how it works out.

Well, that’s a good point, because one of the arguments that the people at the Picnic Area are making is that their houses have been devalued by all the people in front of their houses. So that has ramifications townwide also, because if it’s condemned, and if they lose, say, $1 million in value, then that means they get reassessed. And the school districts have been living off the land here, with 70 percent of the [property] taxes going to them. They’ll find an enormous shortfall. So it’s a very complex issue of what you do.

Q: So this ruling has tendrils …

Definitely. Townwide, school districtwide, people’s enjoyment-wide. Everything. It really affects everything. And it’s like a elaborate game of chess. You move one piece and it affects somebody else.

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