Town Will Appeal ‘Truck Beach’ Ruling, And Explore Condemnation

Truck Beach in Amagansett

East Hampton’s elected officials this week said they would use a variety of legal avenues to defend the right of residents to continue using “Truck Beach” in Amagansett in the wake of a court ruling that the beach is privately owned and public use must be limited.

Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc pledged that the town would appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court and that, if all else failed, the town would seek to seize ownership of the beach by eminent domain — an approach, known as condemnation, that his predecessor, Larry Cantwell, had been steering the Town Board toward doing prior to a 2016 court ruling that had appeared to make the tactic unnecessary.

Officials have not indicated whether last week’s ruling would mean the limitations on use of the beach would have to be enforced this coming summer, or if a new round of court appeals would mean the power of the ruling is held in suspense until all legal avenues are exhausted.

“The Town Board will take any and all steps necessary to ensure that East Hampton’s longstanding, cherished rights and tradition of public beach access continue now and for generations to come,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said in a statement on Friday.

The first step will be filing an appeal of last week’s ruling. The state appeals process allows that the town may petition the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest state court, to review the decision of the appellate division.

But the legal criteria for bringing a case before the Court of Appeals is more narrow than appealing a lower ruling on the facts of the case and the Court of Appeals often declines to even hear arguments on an appeal.

It has been 12 years since four homeowners associations, whose members own homes on the narrow streets cut through the dunes of what is commonly referred to as Beachampton in eastern Amagansett, filed a lawsuit against East Hampton Town and the East Hampton Town Trustees challenging the right to allow vehicles to use the beach.

The case focused on the fact that the stretch of beach east of Napeague Lane to the boundary with Napeague State Park — about 4,000 linear feet — has generally been the only beach in the town, since the early 1980s, where 4×4 vehicles are permitted to drive on the beach during the day in summertime.

The beach has become a haven for sunbathers who want to be able to drive their vehicles onto the sand so that they may bring with them more of the modern implements of recreation — grills, coolers of food and drinks, surfboards, sporting equipment and so forth — than the typical schlep from a regular beach parking lot makes feasible.

As 4×4 vehicles have become more common in American households, the number of vehicles that have bounced their way along the sand from the end of Marine Boulevard has grown from only a smattering to dozens or even hundreds on sunny summer Sundays.

The lawsuit from the homeowners laid two main claims to ending the vehicle use: First, that the beach was, in fact, part of the large swath of land that was sold by the East Hampton Town Trustees to a land speculator named Arthur Benson in 1882; and, second, that the use of the beach by such a large number of vehicles and people, without proper bathroom facilities, was an environmental and health hazard that he town and Trustees should be obligated to protect against.

The case wended its way through the glacial civil court process until it finally came to trial in early 2016. The judge in the case, Supreme Court Justice Ralph T. Gazillo, had initially found in a partial ruling that the homeowners associations had proven their ownership of the beach. But after the trial, the judge reversed his position, and delivered a sweeping victory to the town in his last ruling from the bench before retiring, dismissing all of the homeowners’ claims of ownership and complaints about the problems of the use.

After another three-years of legal meandering, the appeal by the homeowners reached the Appellate Division, Second Department in Brooklyn last February, where the attorneys for the plaintiffs — Steve Angel, of the Riverhead law firm Esseks Hefter & Angel, and James Catterson — savaged Judge Gazillo’s ruling as having ignored facts and seized on incorrect legal assumptions.

Last Wednesday, February 3, the five appellate judges agreed with them on several key points and reversed the foundational claims of Judge Gazillo’s ruling pertaining to the ownership of the beach.

The appellate judges said that the evidence presented does, in fact, make it clear that the beach bordering the residential streets was part of the sale of the land by the Town Trustees to Arthur Benson in 1882 and that the ownership remains intact. The judges prohibited the Town Trustees and town from issuing any permits for vehicles to drive and park on that stretch of beach.

“The Town and Trustees provided no evidence that any of the deeds in the respective title chains were invalid,” the court decision reads.

The court ruling said the public does retain the right to access the beach for “fishing and fishing-related purposes” only, as described in a clause of the original 1882 deed, which reserves for town residents the right to “land fish boats and netts [sic] to spread the netts on the adjacent sands and care for the fish and material as has been customary heretofore on the South Shore.”

The reference to the fishermen who worked the shoreline centuries ago, was seen as apropos by current Truck Beach users, who have noted that the residences in the dunes — on lands that likely could never be subdivided under today’s environmental laws — did not exist when 4×4 owners started using the beaches.

“This has been going on for decades,” East Hampton Town Councilman David Lys, who helped found the pro-4×4 group Citizens for Access Rights in response to the filing of the Truck Beach lawsuit in 2009, said this week. “Back in the early 80s … before a lot of these subdivisions were even there, I belonged to the Presbyterian church and the dads from the Presbyterian church and the dads of the East Hampton Methodist church would take all the youths down to that beach after church. I’m talking about the old haul-seiners, and we would go to this beach they knew to get away.”

What the ruling will mean for the use of the beach this coming summer remains to be seen.

“We have not yet determined what our course of action will be on any of it,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.

Members of the East Hampton Town Trustees, who own most of the town’s beaches and regulate the use of 4x4s, offered no insight as the boards begin to explore the legal options available to them.

“It’s important for the public to know that we will continue to press on this and we will do everything we can to make sure that they have continued access to that beach,” Trustees Clerk Francis Bock said on Monday night.

The town had been working on starting the eminent domain proceedings to force a “sale” of the beach as the lawsuit wended it’s way through the State Supreme Court, but shelved the effort after the 2016 ruling.

Upon hearing of this week’s decision, Mr. Van Scoyoc immediately said that the he would expect the town to resume its eminent domain plans.

“I guess we’re going to be working on condemnation, then,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said without hesitation on Wednesday afternoon when told of the court’s ruling. “It’s not up to me alone, of course — it’s a board decision — but we have stated in the past that’s what we were prepared to do, and I would think we will get back to work on that.”

Representatives of the homeowners had warned the board at the time that condemnation, which requires a property owner be compensated for the fair value of the land, would require the town to pay tens of millions, or maybe more, if it condemned the beach.

But the town’s attorneys had advised that the true value of the beach, which would be determined in court, would actually be a small sum, since the beach is not developable land.