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Fishermen To Test ‘Truck Beach’ Prohibition

Michael Wrighton Oct 13, 2021

An attorney for East Hampton fishermen says that he believes town residents should feel free to drive on a private stretch of sand in Amagansett and that if they are ticketed for trespassing bringing the fight to court will serve as a test case for the rights he believes all residents still have to access the beach.

East Hampton commercial fishermen plan to lead another protest parade of 4x4 vehicles onto the Amagansett beach east of Napeague Lane, long known as “Truck Beach,” this coming Sunday in open disregard of a February court ruling that the beach was private.

Attorney Dan Rodgers said that he expects a trespassing summons to be issued if the homeowners who the court ruled own the beach are willing to make a criminal complaint against the vehicles. But he hopes to argue in court that they had every right to be there.

“It seems like it’s inevitable — someone will get charged with criminal trespass and it will go to justice court and the question will be, ‘Do you have the right to be on that property?” Rodgers said on Tuesday, announcing the protest planned for this coming weekend. “And the answer is yes, they do. The homeowners asked the court to find that the easement right was extinguished and the court did not do that.”

The easement Mr. Rodgers refers to is in an 1882 deed to hundreds of acres of dunes at the western end of Napeague and, according to a recent court ruling, the adjacent ocean beach itself.

When the East Hampton Town Trustees sold the land that eventually became the neighborhood known as Beachampton to developer Arthur Benson, they left a reservation for the only members of the public who regularly accessed the then-remote stretch of sand at the time: fishing. The wording says that fishermen will still be allowed access to “land fish boats, spread nets and tend to fish.”

More than a century later, the beach became hugely popular as the largest stretch of beach where 4x4 vehicles were still allowed to drive during the day in summer — giving rise to weekly gathering of families that wished to bring coolers, grills, surfboards, fishing equipment and other gear than lugging from the parking lot of town beaches would make feasible.

But when the homeowners sued and state courts ultimately — 11 years later — agreed that the beach was privately owned, the allowance remained that residents could access the beach “for fishing and fishing related purposes,” as the state Appellate Division put it.

Rodgers and access rights advocates say that should mean that fishermen should still feel free to access the beach. The attorney goes a step further, saying that anyone, as long as they can declare some intention to fish, should feel included in the rights reserved in the deed.

“We don’t care one lick if the town owns the property or the homeowners own the property — they’ve spent a lot of money fighting for a ruling that is not going to be enforceable,” Rodgers said. “If anything, it should be easier to access the beach now. You don’t need a beach driving permit since the town has no jurisdiction on that beach anymore.”

The homeowners, not surprisingly, do not agree with Rodgers’s assessment and a representative of the 100-plus properties that collectively own the beach noted this week that the town is under a restraining order from the court to bar vehicles from entering the private beach.

”I don’t know what the town will do — they are treading on thin ice, said Ken Silverman, the president of one of the homeowners associations that brought the lawsuit in 2009 challenging the town’s right to allow 4x4 access. “They are under the TRO, they are facing contempt.”

Silverman said that he would expect that the planned protest will be headed off by town authorities before it ever reaches the point of trespassing, since town officials — including the chiefs of the East Hampton Town Police Department and Marine Patrol — are under review of possible contempt of court from their less than firm enforcement of the court order last spring.

After the February ruling, as the summer season approached, town officials said they believed the beach was still accessible to 4x4 vehicles for those who were fishing. A sign was posted at the boundary line saying as much.

When fishermen mounted their first protest in April, parading a few dozen trucks onto the sand in a demonstration against the court ruling, town police informed them they were trespassing and jotted down license plates in case a criminal complaint was filed.

None was, but the homeowners returned to the court and accused town officials of contempt, for consciously trying to subvert the court’s findings, and a judge issued a temporary restraining order instructing the town to actively prohibit vehicles from entering the beach for any purpose.

After that, the town took a more direct stance that the beach was closed off to vehicles. Town Board members have said they are now exploring the possibility of seizing ownership of the beach through the powers of eminent domain.

Meanwhile, Silverman and attorneys for the homeowners have said, “legitimate commercial fishermen” may well have the right to access the beach under the easement and should contact the homeowners, who would certainly agree to their commercial use.

The rub, Silverman said, is that the right could be abused by those “pretending to fish” by putting an unused fishing pole next to their truck as a sidestep of the prohibition on recreational driving and parking on the sand. Rodgers himself harked to the vagueness of what “fishing” could be construed as.

“We don’t have any disagreement with the two Lester brothers,” Silverman, who has been the lone spokesman for the homeowners since 2016, said of Dan and Paul Lester, the Amagansett commercial fishermen who are the only remaining crew that still employs surf dory boats launched from the beach to net striped bass and bluefish in the fall. “The judgment says to land fish boats, spread nets and tend to fish. If there is someone — real fishermen, legitimate fishermen — who claim they have that right, they can contact us.”