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Westwoods Beach Controversy Embroils Trustees In Access Battle

Originally Posted: July 30, 2008

Andrea Aurichio

  |   6 Comments · Print Article

The 79-acre Westwoods Property is located in Hampton Bays on the west side of the Shinnecock Canal. The bay front beach located at the end of Newtown Road is readily accessible to the public, and is also easily approached by boat. Image courtesy of Google Earth

Hampton Bays - Timothy Corwin took a walk on a stretch of beach last summer which surprisingly resulted in a violent altercation that has set off a year-long controversy between the Shinnecock Nation and the Southampton Town Trustees concerning the public's right to traverse the shores of the Great Peconic Bay on 75 acres of reservation land in Hampton Bays owned by the Nation known as the Westwoods.

The beach access issue has resulted in numerous incidents of threats and violence between the Shinnecocks and the beachgoers over the last year according to Corwin. "One kid was hit in the head with a rock and had to be airlifted to Stony Brook where he needed 50 stitches," Corwin said as he addressed the Trustees at their July meeting. "The kid's mother is afraid to come forward and complain because she is afraid of reprisals from the Indians."

Corwin also recalled his own encounter with members of the Nation when he pulled his boat up on the shore at low tide last summer. "They told me to get off the beach. One guy said he could drop me where I stood. What was I supposed to do - get into a fight?" Corwin said, noting he had called the Town Police and the Bay Constable seeking law enforcement intervention. "They said they didn't want to get involved."

The Shinnecock Nation's cultural museum sits on reservation designated land fronting Montauk Highway. Photos by Christine Bellini

The Shinnecock Nation may own the land, but the public has a clear and given right to traverses the beach below the high water mark according to Kathryn Garvin, a town attorney who regularly sits in on the Board of Trustees meetings.

"There is no controversy here," Garvin said, "this issue is not complicated. People have the right to traverse the beach below the high tide mark throughout this state."

Trustees Have Final Say
Trustee Eric Schultz cited the town trustee's authority and control over the waters as well as the land underwater that comprise the bays within Southampton Town's borders. The town's authority also includes the land underwater in the many lakes and ponds throughout the township that are under the trustee's stewardship.

This authority derives from the Dongan Patent, a document drafted in 1686. The Dongan Patent gives town residents rights to common underwater land and also grants the public the right of ways to the water and marshlands within the town's borders. Establishing the Town Trustees as the oldest governing body in Southampton Town and granting the authority to steward beach access and bottomlands, the pre-colonial document remains in jurisdiction to present times.

"If you are below the high water mark, you can clam, fish, and even sit on the beach at low tide. That is the public's right," Schultz explained. He also noted the beachfront must be accessed by boat, or by an access route on land that is open to the public. The public, however, cannot approach a private beach via trespassing on private property above the high tide mark.

The Shinnecock Nation is an integral part of the community holding many
events on their Reservation located in the Shinnecock Hills throughout the
year that are open to the public.

The lands comprising the Shinnecock Reservation located on a bay front peninsula south of the Montauk Highway in Southampton are owned and controlled by the Nation and are largely exempt from town codes. The Westwoods property accessible from Newtown Road, located just west of the Shinnecock Canal, however, does not fall into the same category according to a recent court decision noting the chain of ownership on the property was broken in colonial times, a condition that makes the property subject to town law.

This decision was handed down after the Shinnecocks sought to establish a casino on this site a few years ago. Their efforts were squashed by the town and the courts. All Shinnecock lands are policed by the State Police.

"The Indians are still patrolling the beach," Corwin said, "and they are asking people to leave. Who is going to protect our rights to use that beach?"

Garvin dismissed Corwin's suggestion to have a Bay Constable in plain clothes patrol the beach in a semi-undercover capacity. "I am not sure we can commit a bay constable to that kind of activity if it is not safe," Garvin commented.

Town Trustee Chairman Jon Semlear noted the issue of beach access on the Westwood property was being carefully researched by Trustee Eric Schultz. "We are lucky to have him working on this. He has a great deal of expertise in this area."

Schultz is planning to set up a meeting with representatives of the Shinnecock Nation. "We will sit down and discuss this and we will resolve it soon. We are not going to wait another year," Schultz assured. However, the trustee's efforts to mediate appear to have hit a snag. "I have not been able to make contact with representatives of the Shinnecock Nation," Schultz said this week. "They are not returning my phone calls."

Beverly Jensen, a media representative of the Shinnecock Nation, noted she was unable to reach Tribal officers this week to comment on the Trustees most recent meeting on the beach access issue.

The Trustees will continue their review of the issue at their next monthly meeting scheduled to be held on Monday, Aug. 4 at 1 p.m. at the Southampton Town Hall on Hampton Road.

Guest (Keith) from Seattle says::
A little elaboration on my last post. Casinos have served as focal points of pride and identity for each of the tribes that has built them. IMHO, it is undeniable that they have materially benefited each tribe as a whole and the members individually. They have also served to decrease tensions between the tribes and surrounding neighbors (who are their best customers). The gold standard in your neck of the woods is the Mohegan Sun in CT. PS- I am not a tribal member.
Jul 30, 2009 2:06 pm

Guest (Keith) from Seattle says::
I grew up in HB. I think I took one tour through the Shinnecock reservation in Southamton when I was a kid and remember thinking that the tribe wouldn't last another generation. Well, 40+ years later, they're still there, but still not thriving. Within 50 miles of my home here in Kitsap County there are more than 10 major (1500+ slots) and at least 5 smaller (300 - 700 slots) casinos. The casinos and tribes are both thriving.
Jul 25, 2009 6:03 pm

Guest (Maria) from Hampton Bays, NY says::
I agree that the Shinnecock as many other native Americans have been treated unfair... In the long run if this casino is built, imagine THE JOB OPPORTUNITIES that will be presented for all of us in this very difficult time of economic crisis! The Hamptons will be more popular than ever! We will be able to support our families again...with the years going by like this...am I the only one seeing that the Hamptons are becoming less and less popular and that people are going to the NJ shore instead? Don't forget: Atlantic City is right by there! Having a casino in the Hamptons area may be the one big chance we've all been waiting for! Good luck Shinnecock Tribe!
Jul 16, 2009 4:06 pm

Guest (former clammer) from Southampton, NY says::
Stones were thrown at us from the Shinnecock Reservation back in the late 70's, and we were off shore! in Old Fort Pond. Evidently some think that if they can see you from their land, you're on their property. And in my opinion, we can make a compromise on this issue and stay clear of their land and beaches since we took so much from them in the past.
Aug 6, 2008 12:13 pm

Guest (algonquin1125@yahoo.com) from New York NY says::
It is time for the "people" of the Hamptons to get over their feeling that they must make and enforce rules for every inch of land in the Hamptons. Long before they ever arrived on the east end, the Shinnecocks, Montauks and other native groups lived and thrived here. Now that there are a few feet of water one of the privileged cannot get to... they are all ready to battle. What is wrong with this picture? Don't you have enough?
Aug 6, 2008 12:00 am

Guest (fight for indians) from sag harbor,ny says::
Theres plenty of beaches on the east end. Let the natives have there beach. They don't even have 10% of the land that should be theres. I also think that a casino would do really well in the Westwooods location.
Aug 4, 2008 12:00 am


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