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Mar 28, 2016 5:30 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Property Owners Mount Attacks On Ocean Beach Driving

In the Town of Southampton, those with 4x4 beach permits are only allowed to drive on the beach between the hours of 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. in the summer, but outside of the summer months they can drive on the beaches anytime they want. GREG WEHNER
May 31, 2016 1:35 PM

Recent changes to rules governing some of Southampton Town’s most popular beaches have some people—those who like to take vehicles onto the beach—worried that their access is being taken away.

It’s an ongoing battle, fought both locally and in other beach hotspots around the country. For many, it’s an emotional struggle: They consider driving on the beach a precious tradition, stretching back decades, not only for recreational purposes but also for gathering food and other resources.

On the South Fork, in both East Hampton and Southampton towns, challenges have been mounted by private property owners along the beach: They’ve asked the courts to step in and limit, or ban, vehicles on the public beach between their houses and the water.

Since 2010, the Southampton Town Trustees, who have traditionally been charged with managing the use of public beaches, have spent nearly $1 million in legal fees, fighting to preserve their right to regulate ocean beaches—and some of these lawsuits have been lost, stripping the Trustees, for instance, of their authority over beaches within the town’s five incorporated villages. Of nearly 30 miles of ocean coastline in the town, the Trustees can now regulate beach access, and the use of hardened structures like bulkheads and sandbags, on only 11 miles.

Let Volusia Vote

But the fight is not unique to the South Fork. Even Daytona Beach, Florida—a spot whose popularity is virtually defined by vehicles driving on the beach—has been scaling back.

The two-thirds drop in jurisdiction for the local Town Trustees is comparable to the amount of beach that has been closed to beach drivers in and around Daytona Beach by Volusia County officials over the last 30 years.

A move to close a section of beach in Volusia County to driving in 2015—which would have given a new resort the right to have a private beach—infuriated many members of that community, inspiring a “Let Volusia Vote” movement pushing for a referendum on whether the beach should or should not be closed to driving.

The beaches in Volusia County are completely public; in Southampton Town, the beaches are public by way of an easement running from the sand dune to the high-water mark—property owners technically own the land down to the water, but they cannot exclude the public from using the beach.

A 1988 Florida law prohibits the state and county government from expanding the areas open to beach driving, and also allows local municipalities to restrict beach driving.

Greg Gimbert, 47, a Daytona Beach resident and founder and chairman of Let Volusia Vote, said the amount of drivable beach there has dropped over the past three decades from 47 miles down to 17 miles. Mr. Gimbert blames the drop mainly on hotel and condominium developers who want to privatize beaches in front of their properties.

“The laws in New York may be very different than in Florida,” Mr. Gimbert said in a phone interview. “Up there, the land behind your home is your property. Here in Daytona, we have had a public use of the sand above the high-water mark. Other places, you have private beaches—where, here, the courts have recognized it as a public beach,” he added.

And yet the issue is still the subject of some debate along the South Fork’s oceanfront as well.

The owners of the newly designed Dune Deck in Westhampton Beach Village plan a private ocean beach for members when the project is completed. According to the developers, members of the 32,141-square-foot oceanfront hotel, which is being built by Arizona-based Discovery Land for $19 million, will have access to a beach that will not be open to the public.

Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz said the town, as the guardian of the easement on behalf of town residents, will have the right to fight any restriction of use of the beach. But a question remains: The private beach plan at Dune Deck is within village limits—so will the courts even recognize the Trustees’ jurisdiction there? And if not, who will take up the fight?

Truck Beach Fight

Ever since the Dongan Patent was adopted in 1686, the Town Trustees have been able to regulate activities such as fishing and collecting seaweed along the easement, and that is not expected to change—a court recently upheld at least that much of the Trustees’ right. In the summer, Southampton Town residents are allowed to participate in those activities all day long. But beach driving is allowed only from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. during the season.

Southampton Town Trustee President Ed Warner pointed out that there are no time constraints for commercial fishermen plying their trade along oceanfront beaches—including those in vehicles.

In East Hampton Town, beach driving is allowed at a 4,000-foot stretch of oceanfront at Napeague, called “Truck Beach,” in the summer months between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.—an exception to limits during the day on other stretches of ocean beach. In 2009, a group of beachfront homeowners filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court claiming that they, and not the East Hampton Town Trustees, own the beach—although, historically, the East Hampton Town Trustees have claimed stewardship on behalf of the public.

The owners of homes near Truck Beach complained that beachgoers, who have been parking there in greater numbers over the years, lit bonfires, set off fireworks, left behind broken glass and endangered environmentally sensitive dunes with their vehicles.

Cindi Crain, an Amagansett resident who is a plaintiff in one lawsuit seeking to limit the use of Truck Beach, said there are days when 600 to 800 people will pile on the beach; there are no bathrooms, so some use the beach as their toilet, she says.

There are also times, she said, when there are two to three lanes of traffic on the beach, and nobody to control it. “Truck use and development has increased—both of which are town-enabled,” she said.

“Resident homeowners have title to the beach,” Ms. Crain said. “We’re not trying to privatize—we’re looking to have the same rules as everywhere else.” At the same time, she acknowledged that the goal is to have no vehicles on the beach.

After seven years, the case—in which the homeowners assert their right to private enjoyment of the beach, among other legal arguments—is ready to go to trial on June 6 in State Supreme Court in Riverhead. “We’re relieved to finally get to trial,” Ms. Crain said.

Homeowners also complained that their stretch of sand is being treated differently from the other beaches in East Hampton Town, because vehicles were permitted to drive on the beach during the daytime hours in the summer. The dispute eventually led to the creation of a group of beachgoers called Citizens for Access Rights—and another group, made up of homeowners, called Safe Access for Everyone, which Ms. Crain co-founded.

The latter group launched a public campaign in 2015 to fight a town plan to condemn nearly a mile of beachfront, a move that town officials hoped to use to sidestep the courtroom battle over control of the beach. One drawback: While condemning properties is an option that can be exercised by local and town government officials, it can end up being costly to the taxpayer.

Last Men Standing

Like those in East Hampton Town, Southampton Town beach driving enthusiasts are in a similar fight with oceanfront homeowners in the Village of Southampton who live along a 2,000-foot section of beach known as the “Picnic Area.”

If the village moves forward with a recent proposal, it will cap the number of vehicles that are able to access the Picnic Area at a given time, at 175, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The village would police the number of vehicles on the beach by setting up a single access point at the nearby heliport.

The move to cap the number of vehicles was prompted by a lawsuit charging that the village and Town Trustees were unfairly allowing vehicles on a small portion of the beach during the day in the summer, while excluding vehicles from other beaches. The lawsuit was filed by the Araskog family against Southampton Village, the Southampton Town Trustees and the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Speaking on behalf of the Araskogs at a Southampton Village Board public hearing on May 12, Nica Strunk, a Southampton-based attorney, said her clients are civic-minded and care about the community—and that the last thing they want to do is deprive people of being able to go to the beach. But driving on it is another matter.

When asked by Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley if her clients were looking to have no vehicles drive on the beach at all, Ms. Strunk replied that they would prefer that—but that if a study found that it was safe for the environment and for people, and a resolution was proposed that could be applied to all of the village beaches, her clients would accept that.

The battle for the beaches is proceeding on several fronts, with no clear answer to how the skirmishes will play out. Some see it in simple terms: Will the winners be the ones who, for generations, have been able to access the beach? Or will it be newcomers who paid top dollar for their properties along the ocean, and will pay top dollar to fight to be able to use it however they wish, without interference?

“Unfortunately, this [is] what the Hamptons are becoming—the playground for the rich and famous,” Mr. Warner said recently. “The Trustees will be the last men standing in this fight of the privatization of our most important resource, the beaches.”

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By toes in the water (884), southampton on Mar 30, 16 4:03 PM
1 member liked this comment
You own the house, you don't own the beach behind it. That simple. So sick and tired of people with money changing the way we live solely for their own purposes.
I'll take the Old Boys Club that cared more about where you were born and how many generations were born there any day over pay to play politics.
By Brandon Quinn (191), Hampton Bays on May 31, 16 8:17 PM
1 member liked this comment
With all due respect, you are wrong, the homes do on the beach.
The resident have access to the med High water mark and thats it. But the beach is deeded and owned.
By Summer Resident (251), Southampton N.Y. on Jun 4, 16 12:41 AM
I don't doubt that is true , but when the people bought the properties and saw that this was going on was it their intent to change the way we live? Must everything be written and constantly questioned? Or is this a way for people to who bought to better themselves financially by creating what they call a better setting for their investment? Its really no different than those that buy next to race track, golf courses or airports, right? You know what you were getting into, now you want other to ...more
By Hank1 (20), Sag Harbor on Jun 8, 16 8:54 PM
1 member liked this comment