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Mar 15, 2016 2:41 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Lawsuits, Policy Changes Spur Southampton Town Trustees To Seek New Beaches For 4x4s

Mar 16, 2016 8:46 AM

Summer is right around the corner, the time of year when many load up their four-wheel-drive vehicles with surfboards, beach chairs, umbrellas, portable grills, and coolers to enjoy a day at the beach—by driving, and parking, on the beach.

In the Town of Southampton, there are only two stretches of sand where residents can buy permits that allow them to drive onto the beach and park for the day during the summer months: one is a bay-facing beach off Cold Spring Road in Tuckahoe; the other is an enormously popular ocean beach that sits off Meadow Lane, between roads F and G, in Southampton Village, and better known locally as the “Picnic Area.”

After losing several recent lawsuits undermining their authority regarding the continued regulation of oceanfront beaches within incorporated villages, the Southampton Town Trustees have essentially stepped out of the picture when it comes to future regulation of beach driving within village borders. Instead, they have handed over all authority—including the issuing of beach access permits for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts—to the individual villages, creating confusion over who can and can no longer access the Picnic Area, as well as other stretches of beach.

The Picnic Area Battle

At a recent public hearing hosted by the Town Trustees, Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley said that he would like to open more beaches in Southampton Village to beach driving to alleviate crowding at the Picnic Area, and asked the Trustees to also look at beaches east and west of the Shinnecock Inlet to assist with the overcrowding as well.

That request came after several families with oceanfront homes along the Picnic Area sued, alleging that the village and Town Trustees are unfairly and illegally allowing four-wheel-drive vehicles access to the beach near their homes while forbidding them to access other areas. The situation, the 2015 suit charges, has created an unfair burden that must be shouldered by those with oceanfront homes along the Picnic Area. The State Department of Environmental Conservation is another listed defendant.

A few homeowners on Meadow Lane also sued in 1997 and 2005—and those claims were eventually dismissed.

The most recent lawsuit filed by attorney Nica B. Strunk on behalf of property owners Kathleen Araskog Thomas, Andrew S. Thomas, Rand V. Araskog and Jessi M. Araskog on October 21, 2015, alleges that the village and Trustees are unfairly and illegally allowing vehicles on a small portion of the beach during the day in the summertime, while excluding them from other beaches. The Picnic Area, a 2,000-foot-long section of beach that runs between the village’s western boundary and Road F, typically attracts up to 500 vehicles on any given summer day.

Mr. Epley explained this week that the village has always required those accessing the Picnic Area to have 4x4 access passes issued by both the town and village, noting that, at this time, that requirement will remain in place. Both residents and non-village residents can still apply for permits so long as they can prove residency by securing a Town Trustee-issued permit.

Whether that policy will change remains unknown and, when approached this week, Mr. Epley declined to offer specific details of his village’s plans moving forward, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

He did note that village officials plan to expand the size of the parking lot near the heliport on Meadow Lane, and that they plan to alter parking restrictions there, allowing those with 4x4 passes and Coopers Beach passes to park there; currently, only those who have Coopers Beach passes can park there.

The mayor did note that there are no plans to eliminate public access via 4x4 vehicles to the Picnic Area, though he thinks that some restrictions are needed.

“We are exploring capping the number of cars in the Picnic Area at one time,” Mr. Epley said, though those restrictions would apply only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., which is when the rest of the village’s beaches are closed off to 4x4 vehicles. “That number has yet to be determined, and it’s all in negotiations.”

While deciding who will be permitted future access to the Picnic Area will be determined by Southampton Village, the Town Trustees are now scrambling to find alternate locations still under their jurisdiction that could best meet the demands of those town residents who still want to drive their 4x4 vehicles onto the beach.

The Search Begins

In the fall, Town Trustee President Ed Warner Jr. stated that he was interested in finding additional public beaches across the town on which off-road enthusiasts could wander. The need to open more public beaches goes back many years, as the Picnic Area has become more and more crowded, though last year’s lawsuit appears to have finally spurred a townwide search.

The lawsuit filed by homeowners notes that 2,500 beach permits were issued the same year, and that as many as 500 vehicles park, row after row, along the beach near their homes in the summer. The recent court losses suffered by the Town Trustees, meanwhile, further amped up the need to find alternate locations.

To date, the Town Trustees have three potential locations, all west of the Shinnecock Inlet, that could possibly accommodate those who want to continue accessing the beach on their four-wheel-drive vehicles. Those potential sites are in either Hampton Bays or East Quogue, and include Hot Dog and Sand Bar beaches, as well as the stretch of beach that runs between Roads K and L on Dune Road.

Areas east of the canal also are being looked at, though according to Trustee Scott Horowitz, his board needs more time to research potential options.

“The east of the inlet is important and needed,” Mr. Horowitz said. “However, we need a little time to do our due diligence as a board before releasing specific location points.”

Regarding the three western options, he noted that the Trustees still need to fine-tune the specifics, such as clarifying what areas would be opened to four-wheel-drive vehicles so their operators do not interfere with other beachgoers.

“We would like to map out an area on the west side of the canal that is strategically situated,” Mr. Horowitz said. “We have not, as a board, clearly defined what specific area would be appropriate.”

Town Trustee Eric Shultz particularly highlighted Hot Dog Beach, which is located at 35 Dune Road in East Quogue, noting that it already boasts a parking lot and upgraded electric and septic systems that can be used by those who have campers. He estimated that the beach could accommodate between 50 and 60 vehicles.

Still, Mr. Warner noted that he and the other Trustees must first discuss those options with Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. The other stretch of beach, which sits between Roads K and L, are owned by Suffolk County, according to Mr. Shultz.

Another issue, the Trustees noted, is that they need to hire a new environmental analysis manager to evaluate how these activities could threaten native species, such as the endangered piping plover. The board, they said, needs to have an endangered species protection plan in place before opening up any additional beaches to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

“One of the complications we are running into is we don’t have someone doing the plover watch,” Mr. Shultz said. “We need to figure out what areas don’t have a lot of plover traffic.”

The beach rules within the town can be tricky. According to the Town Trustees’ Blue Book, the document that contains all of the rules and regulations pertaining to the waters within Southampton Town, residents can purchase a 4x4 beach permit for $20, and it is valid until December 31 of that year. The permits allows off-road enthusiasts to drive on any beach in the town throughout the year.

But between the Friday preceding Memorial Day and September 15, it is against the law for people to drive on any of the town’s beaches between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. The exception to this rule had been the Picnic Area, which is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Town Trustees.

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SUPPORT THE TOWN TRUSTEES!! The article states " The situation, the 2015 suit charges, has created an unfair burden that must be shouldered by those oceanfront front homes along the picnic area" Despite the Dongan, WHY would the village allow a surf camp, one that operated illegally at the "Picnic Area" without paying any restitution , to legally operate on the beach an DIRECTLY opposite said homeowners law suit.?? Thats where the breakers are!! Any WHY would the Village NOW expand that parking ...more
By toes in the water (884), southampton on Mar 17, 16 8:41 AM
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By toes in the water (884), southampton on Mar 20, 16 10:02 AM
By toes in the water (884), southampton on Mar 20, 16 10:02 AM