- 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.