Disabled Sue Over Turtle Cove Access

Originally published October 02, 2003

A lawsuit has been filed against East Hampton Town alleging that the municipality is in violation of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act for not accommodating the handicapped at Turtle Cove in Montauk.
The suit was filed at Federal District Court in Uniondale on Sept. 17 shortly after a metal, gated fence, erected by the town to block the use of a dirt road leading from Montauk Highway to the cove, was destroyed by vandals.

Turtle Cove is a popular surfing and fishing spot, and the vandals were apparently incensed at the road's having been blockaded by the town, even though it did so under pressure from the federal government.

East Hampton Town Police Chief Todd Sarris said earlier this week that the case was under investigation, but that there were no leads. "They're very tight-lipped down there," he said of the surfcasting community.

Another town police officer, who did not wish to be identified, said that the case was not being pursued aggressively. Pete Hammerle, a town councilman, said the town board intended to leave the gate down, and the road open, until Dec. 1.

The gated fence had drawn the ire of several disabled residents who complained that the able-bodied could still get to the cove, but they could not.

Nor were they happy that the town's plan for Turtle Cove would limit vehicular access. A winding path to the cove that had been created specifically for the use of the disabled was rejected for being too long.

Last February, an informal complaint was filed with the town by lawyers representing several handicapped residents, warning that the Americans With Disabilities Act was being violated. Elyse LaForest, program manager of the National Parks Service's federal lands to parks program, also received a copy of the warning. Subsequently, officials from the parks service visited Turtle Cove to assess the situation for themselves.

In July, Ms. LaForest said that the handicapped had not, in fact, been accommodated at Turtle Cove. She recommended providing keys or a special combination lock for them to open and close the gate. On Sept. 3, the gated fence was torn down.

Glenn Hall, a member of the town disabilities advisory board, said on Monday that the fact that the fence had been torn down did not render the lawsuit moot, because the town still planned to fence off the road as of Dec. 1. He criticized the town board for failing to find and punish those who had vandalized the fence, and for not facing up to what he called its violation of federal law.

"If the fence goes up, the town will be in violation of the A.D.A.,\rdblquote

Mr. Hall said. He added that the suit, filed on behalf of Steve Emmons of Montauk and Dean Kirshner of East Hampton via the Nassau-Suffolk Law Services Committee, demands year-round vehicle access for the handicapped.

The suit specifically asks that the town provide access for "no more than six vehicles\rdblquote in the parking lot at the base of the dirt road immediately, and by construction of a path to the beach from the small lot. Unspecified damages are also asked.

"When the gate goes back up on Dec. 1, at that point, we will address the claims of the handicapped, year round. The town is working on its response" to the lawsuit, Mr. Hammerle said.

The law requires that the town answer the complaint, or ask for its dismissal, by Tuesday.

The road was closed a year ago after Ms. LaForest, whose office is in Boston, learned that it was being heavily used by fishermen and surfers.

At the time, she said that according to the agreement that was attached to the transfer of 17 acres, including the road, from federal to town ownership in 1981, the road was to remain closed to all but emergency vehicles. It was widened in 1998 to make way for trucks and machinery needed to shore up the eroded bluff in front of the Montauk Lighthouse.

Thereafter, traffic increased on the dirt road, and a small parking lot was created by the town. With the threat of having the land returned to the federal government held over their heads, town board members agreed to block the road, at least until they could come up with a plan that satisfied the National Park Service's concern for the surrounding environment.

A plan was hatched; the road would be open for only three months a year, September through November, the prime surfing and surfcasting season. It would be closed to vehicles for the rest of the year, and a winding path would be created to allow access to the disabled.