TURTLE COVE: A Slow Crawl to Please Everyone

Originally published July 11, 2003

The East Hampton Town Board has once again reached an impasse in its efforts to satisfy the federal government, as well as fishermen, surfers, the disabled, and others who were once in the habit of reaching Turtle Cove by way of a dirt road near the Montauk Lighthouse.
The town's latest plan is to open the road to vehicles September through November only, for the fall surfcasting season. A winding path from the Montauk State Park parking lot would be created to facilitate access the rest of the year.

Representatives for the disabled said last week that that was not enough, as some people with handicaps would still have trouble reaching the cove when the road was closed to cars.

Most visitors already can reach the cove via a footpath across Montauk Highway from the state park parking lot. The road itself has been closed to vehicles since last fall after Elyse LaForest, program manager for the National Parks Service's lands-to-parks program, gave the town board an ultimatum: close the road or risk losing it along with the 17 acres it passes through.

The parks service had turned the land over to the town in 1981. A stipulation was that the road was not to be used for cars, but it started to be in 1998, after it was widened to accommodate heavy machinery for an erosion-control project at the lighthouse. Most of the vehicles are driven by fishermen and surfers.

This year, in March, two town residents hired the Nassau-Suffolk Law Services Committee of Islandia to represent them. They charged that closing the road, even temporarily, violated the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

On June 24, the town board voted to send the plan for the three-month opening and winding path to Ms. LaForest.

Then, two days later, federal authorities met with members of the East End Disabilities Group and the town disabilities advisory board at Turtle Cove. Another solution was proposed: to keep the road open year round to vehicles, but only those driven by the disabled.

Glenn Hall, a member of the town disabilities advisory board, said the problem with the winding path idea was that "there are people who can't walk that distance."

"The disabled are not just those in wheelchairs," he said. "You would have to walk from the state parking lot, across the highway, along the road, and then down the path. It's between 1,100 and 1,400 feet."

Under Mr. Hall's proposal, vehicles driven by the handicapped would have a sticker, and a sign would be placed at the start of the dirt road announcing that it is for the handicapped only.

However, Robert Briglio, a lawyer with the Nassau-Suffolk Law Services Committee, said the town's proposal for a winding trail was "the best way to make the park accessible."

"The law allows for reasonable accommodation, unless it causes a hardship," he said. The town's plan, he said, "is consistent with federal regulations."

The handicapped "have nothing" at present, he said, because the road is completely closed. "We're talking from September till now; that's seriously wrong."

Mr. Hall said that if the road were closed to everyone, the disabled would accept it. However, since it is maintained for emergency vehicles and used by others, including pedestrians, federal law requires equal access for the disabled, he said.

"The town is now in clear violation, and temporary access for the disabled should be created," he said, adding that lawsuits were sure to follow if such access was not provided. "The feds know the town is in violation. We have sent a letter to the board advising them to consult their lawyers," Mr. Hall said.

His proposal had a mixed review from the town board at its July 1 work session. Councilman Pete Hammerle proposed his handicapped-vehicles-only idea, but with the caveat that the road be opened to others during the surfcasting season.

A straw vote found three board members, Job Potter, Mr. Hammerle, and Jay Schneiderman, approving of this approach, but the other two, Diana Weir and Pat Mansir, opposing it. Both argued that allowing only the handicapped to drive on the road outside of the surfcasting season seemed to violate the rights of others.