- Upping the ante in the ongoing battle for continued public beach access off Southampton's Dune Road, the SABA (Southampton Association of Beach Access) presented a $15,000 check to the Southampton Town Trustees this week to defray legal expenses the town is likely to incur defending itself against lawsuits brought by a group of Dune Road homeowners seeking to ban four wheel drive vehicles traversing the access points which neighbor their oceanfront properties.
Presently in appeal, according to Town Trustee Attorney Katie Garvin, four previous lawsuits brought against the municipalities on behalf of a handful of homeowners in that exclusive neighborhood have already been over ruled in the state court system. The appeal now pending addressed the last two rulings handed down against them in New York State Supreme Court. According to Garvin, both sides have filed their papers and the appeal process now under way.
At issue are the beach access lanes at Roads F and G along Dune Road at the western most end of the barrier beach neighbor which constitutes some of the most elite oceanfront residences in the region. Southampton Town and Village Trustees steward the beach lands from the high water mark at the water's edge to the base of the dunes, a jurisdiction established by historic easement dating back to the Dongan Patent of 1686, nearly the oldest public law on record here. Predating in some cases the formation of America as a republic, the trustee domain has been consistently upheld in the courts since the advent of lawsuits.
In addition to beach access, the Trustees are chartered to oversee the protection of underwater lands, rights of way to water and marshlands and their common areas.
According to officials, Southampton Town, along with the Village of Southampton, has been named by oceanfront homeowners along Meadow Lane and Dune Lanes in four separate lawsuits hotly debating the issue over the past ten years. Each time the courts ruled in favor of the municipalities, defending their rights to issue permits to drivers of four wheel drive vehicles.
More challenges to the Trustees authority to control the beach areas between the high tide mark and the dunes seem likely according to an SABA spokesman.
"This is a first," James R. McLauchlen, president of the Southampton Association for Beach Access, (SABA) as he presented the trustees with the check. "We know the town has the money to pay for their legal defense, but we want to pitch in and help out. As citizens this is very important to us." SABA presently counts 1500 active members.
Southampton Town Trustee President John Semlear thanked the SABA for the contribution, pledging to continue to uphold the citizen's rights to beach access. "We're thrilled about the donation," Semelear said. "Upholding beach access is the number one job of the town trustees."
Driving signs cautioning soft sand warn four wheelers
of the terrain. Photos by Christine Bellini
The town's legal woes concerning public access along that coveted oceanfront began more than a decade ago, when a group of Meadow Lane homeowners filed law suits against the town and village in 1997 and subsequently in 1999. The courts ruled against the homeowners in both cases.
Drivers of 4 X 4's customarily enter the beach by using Trustee Roads F and G along Dune Road. The Shinnecock County Park adjoins the beach to the west. Both the Town and the Village issue the beach access permits. Oceanfront homeowners objecting to the traffic created by these vehicles, also object to number of permits issued in marked contrast to the strict summer time parking regulations they contend is enforced at the public beaches which fall under the auspices of the municipalities.
The Trustee easements or 'rights of way,' which entitle use of the beach land between the dunes and the sea, is of particular discomfort to the exclusive enclave along Meadow Lane and Dune Road where the oceanfront homeowners would prefer to maintain the private nature of their picturesque front yards. While property owners have a say as to what occurs on their respective lots down to the high tide line, they cannot prevent fellow residents from using this right of way to traverse to the beach. Contending that the four wheeler's are disruptive, introducing noise and flying sand to their otherwise pristine environs, the oceanfront homeowners appear to have the "deep pockets" needed to battle the issue in the state court system.
In 2003 Meadow Lane residents filed a subsequent lawsuit against the Town and the Village. Referred to as "The Nuisance Lawsuit" seeking to ban off road vehicles from the beaches, maintains that conditions caused by public access to the beach violates their constitutional rights, including the right to quiet enjoyment, as well as lowering property values. The ocean front homeowners also objected to the noise and litter they claim is a direct result of the four-wheeler activity on their beachfront.
Charged the town with creating both a public and private nuisance, the lawsuit noted the municipalities were effectively creating public beaches without providing restrooms, lifeguards and garbage cans for the beachgoers who drove onto the beach and parked all day long. The case was dismissed in November of 2006.
The court's ruling against the homeowners cited the two previous cases, concluding that the granting of permits to allow use of the beaches did not adversely affect the homeowners as they claimed.
Homeowners subsequently filed yet another lawsuit in March of 2006, commonly referred to as "The Bathing Beach" Case, which also claimed that a public beach was being operated illegally since there were no restrooms, lifeguards, garbage cans, or other facilities required by law at public facilities. The complaint noted the beach was being run without a permit and was in violation of New York State Health Codes. The lawsuit called upon the County Health Department to correct the situation.
Earlier Case Dismissed
Dismissed by State Supreme Court Judge John J. J. Jones, the finding further upheld the decision that the issuance of permits for beach driving did not constitute the creation of a public beach by the local governments. In his ruling, Judge Jones wrote, "It is well established that the ownership of the oceanfront parcels are subject to an historic public easement between the high water mark of the ocean and the southerly crest of the dunes held by the Trustees for the benefit of the people of the township."
"My family has been using these beaches for five generations," McLauchlen contends. "SABA wants to ensure that we all get to enjoy these beaches for fishing, for swimming and for other recreational pursuits". McLauchlen went on to note historical references to ox carts, wheels and other means of conveyance other than foot traffic across the beaches as part of the town's rich library of documents establishing a constant use of a beach roadway between the water's edge and the high tide mark at the crest of the dunes.
"The right to use these beaches existed before the houses on Meadow Lane were built," McLauchlen noted. "You don't move into an area where something already exists -- you know it exists, and then try to outlaw it?