Southampton’s Town Trustees are gearing up for a big legal fight, after several court decisions put their authority to regulate ocean beaches in question, and they’re looking for public support as they take their case to the state court of appeals.
The Trustees held a public forum, which they billed as “One of the Most Important Meetings You Will Ever Attend,” at the Southampton HIgh School Friday night, June 19, at 7 p.m.
More than 200 people came to a Monday afternoon meeting in mid-May to show their support for the Trustees, after the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division ruled in April that the Trustees can’t regulate any activities other than those of members of the general public who traverse over the Trustees’ oceanfront access easements.
The controversy stems from three cases in the villages of Quogue and Westhampton Dunes. In Quogue, the Trustees had sued the village after the village approved the placement of geotextile sandbags in front of two oceanfront homes, after which the Village of Westhampton Dunes sued the Trustees looking to defend its own rights along the shoreline.
The appellate court ruled that the Trustees had simply a narrow authority over historic public recreational use of the waterfront dating back to the 19th century such as bathing, fishing and gathering seaweed, but not over modern activities like the use of motor vehicles or the installation of revetments, bulkheads or geotextile sandbags.
Trustee President Ed Warner told the crowd who gathered at the May 18 meeting that, while the Trustees don’t have the ability to directly appeal the appellate court decision, “the town board has committed to fighting these decisions.”
“Right now, we’re reaching out to the town board to enable us to be a strong, united front,” he told the crowd, adding that he could use their help in sending letters backing the Trustees to state lawmakers.
There are only three “Trustee of the Freeholders and Commonality” boards left in New York State — in Southampton, East Hampton and Southold towns. Established by the Dongan Patent in 1686, they are among the oldest contiuous governing boards in the United States, and are charged with the care of the common lands of the towns, which now comprise primarily marshes, waterways, bottom lands and beaches.
“We’re kind of like a dinosaur,” said Mr. Warner. “Whenever we go to state meetings, we have to educate people about what we do.”
Mr. Warner added that the other two Trustee bodies in Southold and East Hampton are also closely watching the cases and willing to lend support to Southampton.
At the May 18 meeting, Southampton Association for Beach Access President Tim Behringer pledged his 1,600-member organization’s full support in the Trustees’ legal effort.
“The Dongan Patent will be upheld,” he said, adding that his group can raise money to help the trustees fight the appellate division’s ruling. “If the town board won’t support you, this group will… It’s not something left over from the King of England. It’s worked for 400 years. It should stay in place.”
Montauk Surfcasters communications director Jay Blatt likened the decision to “the dismantling of your body of government.”
“You are a watchdog. We will fight for you,” he said. “It’s legal maneuvering and antics. They just want to hogtie you guys. We will fight for you.”
John Bouvier of Quogue said that he read the court decisions and they were “weak decisions, odd decisisons.”
“We should all be classified as friends of the court, and if it happens to go to appeal, you’re going to be able to send your letters to that court and try to change this decision,” he said. “We’re all advocates, every one of us in this room.”
Beach access advocates have started a Facebook page, Freeholders in Support of Our Southampton Trustees, to provide updates on their work.