Town Hits Back On ‘Truck Beach’ Legal Standing

Town Police gave 14 summonses to fishermen in October for violating a court order to keep vehicles off an Amagansett beach. Now the town is asking a court lift that order, and declare the beach accessible for fishing and fishing related purposes.

Attorneys for East Hampton Town and the East Hampton Town Trustees this week asked a state court to lift a temporary restraining order that had commanded them to actively prohibit vehicles from accessing the Amagansett beach long known as “Truck Beach,” and to clarify the extent to which the public must be granted access under the reservations in the original 1882 deed for the land.

In a salvo of court motions and letters to the State Supreme Court, the town’s attorneys, from the Albany law firm Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP, argued that the restraining order issued in June had exceeded the orders of the State Appellate Division judges who ruled last February that the beach was owned outright by the adjacent property owners associations and should be vacated or modified.

The ruling from Appellate Division simply ordered that neither the town nor the Town Trustees had the power to issue permits to 4×4 owners to access the beach east of Napeague Lane, as it had done for decades under the assumption that the beach itself was still publicly owned, but made no specific mention of specifically banning vehicles from any access, the town’s attorneys argue in the briefings, filed in state court on Friday, November 19.

“The final judgment … was a limited prohibitory injunction barring the town ‘from issuing permits purporting to authorize their holders to operate and park vehicles on property owned by the plaintiffs,’” the cross-motion from the town reads. “The final judgment also recognized that an express fishing reservation in the 1882 ‘Benson deed’ gave rise to an easement for the public to use the plaintiff’s Napeague Beach properties ‘for fishing and fishing-related purposes.’”

In light of that final judgment by the Appellate Division, the lower court lacked the power to grant additional relief to the plaintiffs in issuing the restraining order against all access to the beach, the arguments claim.

In it’s February decision, which concluded a 12-year legal fight over whether the town had the right to allow hundreds of 4×4 vehicles to park on the beach during the day in the summertime, the panel of Appellate Division judges had acknowledged and left in place easements in that original 19th century deed between the East Hampton Town Trustees and developer Arthur Benson which expressly left open the right of fishermen to access the beach, in some form.

The town argues that it should not be bound to bar all access to the land and, in a separate motion, will ask the court to clarify exactly what level of access those easements should allow in today’s reality.

An attorney for the fishermen, Dan Rodgers, has argued that the reservation should effectively mean that any town resident with fishing equipment should be allowed to access the property.

Attorneys for the homeowners, in contrast, have said the easement should not necessarily be construed to mean anything beyond the literal activities described, in 1882 terms, by the original wording, which is to allow “the landing of fish boats, spreading of netts [sic] and tending to fish,” and makes no mention of overland travel by vehicles of any kind and cannot be carried over into the modern era and associated with 4×4 trucks.

“The way I read the Appellate Division decision is … it just reserves fishing and fishing-related rights,” Steve Angel, one of the attorneys for the five Amagansett homeowners associations that started the legal grappling in 2009, said on Monday. “The decision only refers to the instrument, the Benson deed, and that only says to land fish boats and spread nets. The decision says no vehicles.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that he suspects a reasonable interpretation of the easement will fall somewhere between those extremes.

“We believe the public has a right, specifically those who fish, since those easements were left intact by the court, but that needs to be clarified,” Van Scoyoc said. “There are extremes on each end of the spectrum or interpretation. Dan Rodgers wanted us to declare all town residents fishermen. The other end is that you can only be fishing with a ‘nett,’ with two Ts. I don’t know what the court will say, but the easements don’t refer to a make and model fish wagon. I believe in a much more liberal interpretation. Whether it’s 1 horsepower or 300 horsepower, there must have been some kind conveyance presumed to have be used to access the beach.”

The homeowners associations, representing about 110 property owners of the small neighborhoods commonly referred to as Beachampton, sued in 2009 to stop the use of the beach in front of their properties by 4×4 vehicles during the day in summertime. In addition to claiming ownership of the beach, they said that the hundreds of trucks that gathered on summer weekends created a health and safety hazard. The case was original dismissed by a state judge in 2016, but that ruling was overturned last winter by an appeals court that said the beach itself was owned by the homeowners and the town had no right to allow vehicle access.

The homeowners have said that they are only actually concerned with the broad use of the beach by 4x4s in the summertime and not commercial fishermen or even the occasional recreational fisherman, who would be granted access if they requested it of the homeowners.

But town officials have said they do not want to see a portion of beach in the town under private control. If the courts do not limit the access restrictions, the Town Board has said it will consider seizing ownership of the beach through it’s powers of eminent domain — an approach that would quiet the legal jousting, but could prove expensive for the town, depending on how the fair market value of the beach, which the town would be obligated to pay, is determined.

The town’s lawyers also argued against a request by attorneys for the property owners to have the prosecution of 14 residents who were issued trespassing tickets for driving onto the beach in protest last month moved out of the town Justice Court and into the purview of the state civil court that is adjudicating the title claim case, saying that such a move is “unprecedented, statutorily unauthorized and beyond the court’s jurisdiction.”

Rodgers, the attorney, who effectively orchestrated the protest and is representing the fishermen in court, said that he thinks the court’s restraining order and the homeowners have violated the rights of his clients to such an extent as to give them the right to seek damages.

“My reading is that the Homeowners TRO, which they asked for in early June, specifically requiring ‘all persons’ be prohibited from accessing the beach, may have been illegal and in direct contravention of the Appellate Division ruling which clearly upheld the reservation to all East Hampton residents to engage in fishing and fishing related activities,” Rodgers said Monday. “In other words, financial damages to all residents of the town who may have thought about fishing, considered fishing, engaged in fishing, both recreational and commercial or actually fished on that beach. They have been denied access to their own beach! The financial damages here could be significant.”