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Civil Disobedience On The Sand To Protest Court Ruling Saying Beach Is Private

 Michael Wright on Jun 29, 2021


Dozens of 4x4 vehicles flying American flags and adorned with signs of support for beach access rights paraded past police at an Amagansett beach on Sunday morning in open defiance of a court order that declared the stretch of sand privately owned.

Led by commercial fishermen towing a surf dory painted like Old Glory, the Jeeps, pickups and SUVs rolled onto the sand in procession, ignoring signs erected by East Hampton Town declaring the beach closed to vehicles and down the newly privatized stretch of sand long referred to by locals as “Truck Beach.”

“This is a show of community, coming together and showing support for everybody’s rights to be on this beach,” said Dan Leland, one of the local residents who participated in the protest. “I’ve been coming here for 40 years and my dad for 40 before that. How can they take away our rights to it?”

East Hampton Town Marine Patrol officers only briefly attempted to physically block the vehicles from using a narrow avenue around the fence — which is only string tied between wooden posts —and then turned to recording the license plate numbers of the vehicles that entered the area.

Chief Harbormaster Ed Michels said summonses would only be issued to the drivers if the property owner filed a trespassing complaint.

“We were directed to stop vehicles from going onto this beach so we put up the signs and fence, but we have to leave a space for emergency vehicles to get down there,” Mr. Michels said, as vehicles filed back off the beach. “We recorded every vehicle that went down. There has been no complaint yet. If there is, we’ll address it. This is commercial fishermen and their families, and they are being respectful.”

It’s been left unclear from the legal proceedings thus far who the actual owner of the beach is, but an attorney for the homeowners associations has said any individual homeowner could register a complaint as an owner.

An attorney who helped organize the protest on Sunday called it an “act of civil disobedience” and said it would be repeated throughout the summer.

“You can’t tell people they can’t go to the beach to fish,” said Dan Rodgers, an attorney who has represented local commercial fishermen, business owners and Uber drivers in disputes with regulatory agencies in the past. “The police are going to tell us we can’t go down there, it’s private property. We are going to acknowledge that, and then we are going to go anyway. We are not asking permission.”

The beach is closed to vehicles for the first time this summer after a state court ruled over the winter that the beach itself was part of a 19th century sale by the East Hampton Town Trustees of the uplands to a real estate developer.

The town has appealed the ruling, but at the homeowners’ behest the court issued an injunction commanding the town to prohibit vehicles from using the beach until the legal action is settled.

Since the 1980s, the 4,000-foot stretch of beach between Napeague Lane and the boundary of Hither Hills State Park has been one of only a couple places where East Hampton Town and the East Hampton Town Trustees have allowed 4x4 vehicles to drive on the sand during the day in summertime. The town issues 4x4 permits allowing vehicles to drive on all town beaches, but prohibits it at most between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. from mid-May to mid-September.

For decades, Truck Beach has been popular with families and beachgoers who wished to bring more of the implements of recreation — charcoal grills, large coolers of food and drink, surfboards and boogie boards, fishing equipment — than could be carried from a parking lot.

But since the late 1990s, as the proliferation of 4x4 SUVs has exploded, the number of vehicles that have gathered on the sand has soared into the hundreds on sunny summer afternoons.

Homeowners from the neighborhoods just over the dunes, collectively referred to as Beachampton, have said the conditions at the beach left them unable to walk down and lay a blanket or beach chair on the sand near their homes. They registered complaints of people urinating in the dunes and of unsafe conditions caused by the traversing of trucks between the sand and the access path at Marine Boulevard.

In 2009 they sued, claiming that the beach was actually privately owned and could not be included in the areas of access afforded by the town’s 4x4 beach vehicle permits. The case hung on the 1882 deeds for the land, with the town and Town Trustees claiming the sand shoreline was never intended to be part of the sale.

In 2016, a state judge agreed with the town and dismissed the lawsuit entirely. But on appeal, a panel of appellate judges agreed with the homeowners, saying the sand was included in the sale and that the deeds had left access to the beach by members of the public only for “fishing and fishing related purposes,” in reference to wording of a clause in the original sale contract.

Following the ruling, town officials said they were unclear about whether the beach should be closed to vehicles immediately or whether the findings were effectively stayed while they appealed. Just before Memorial Day weekend, the town erected signs saying that vehicle access was only open to those fishing.

The homeowners quickly went back to the court and were awarded a restraining order against the town, commanding that the beach be closed to all vehicles immediately.

The homeowners have also asked the court to find town officials — including Mr. Michels, all of the Town Board members and Town Trustees and East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo — in contempt of court for not having expressly barred vehicles from the beach.

Ken Silverman, the president of one of the homeowners associations that brought the lawsuit and the only homeowner who has spoken publicly, came down to the beach on Sunday morning as the last of the vehicles was rolling off the sand. He said he’d been told by a neighbor that the trucks had broken through the fencing, though he noted that didn’t appear to be the case.

He said the homeowners are not particularly concerned by commercial fishermen traversing the beach intermittently. He suggested that perhaps they should contact the homeowners’ attorney and ask for specific permission.

“We have no fight with the crews that may still be actively fishing,” he said of the few commercial baymen that still use boats launched from the surf to set nets for striped bass and bluefish. “As far as these sympathetic protesters, the court decision said that no one is allowed to drive or park a vehicle on the beach, so they shouldn’t be doing what they are doing and the town shouldn’t allow it.”

He would not comment on whether he thought a complaint would be filed that would lead to summonses being issued by police to those who had driven on the beach Sunday.

Springs resident Denise Forde, who took part in the protest, challenged Mr. Silverman and Mr. Michels as to why town officers had to stand by to actively prevent people from entering this particular piece of private property.

“I don’t have the police watching my property in Springs to make sure nobody walks across my lawn,” she said. “Hire your own security. You’ve got all this money for lawyers. Hire security so when you go to The Palm for dinner nobody will be at your beach.”

Mr. Silverman countered that the difference was that the town had told 4x4 owners for decades that it was okay to drive onto the beach under the pretense that the beach was public and that it was therefore obligated to make sure the new condition was enforced.

He said he does not expect the use of the beach by the public entering on foot would be restricted “unless it becomes an overwhelming thing.” Vehicles would be a different story.

“The town is under a restraining order that says they have to prohibit and prevent vehicles from driving on the beach,” Mr. Silverman said. “I would assume if this is other than a one-day photo-op that they will have a more permanent presence and do what they have to do to prevent the [court] order from being violated.”