The Sands of Napeague




In close to 15 years living full time in East Hampton, I have come to love this community. I can’t think of a nicer place to live or raise a family, despite the fact that other areas might offer a more affordable lifestyle or have fewer people “from away” telling the locals what can and cannot be done. Although 15 years relegates me to being a very recent transplant, my love for our natural environment, endless beaches, and the sport of surfcasting has quickly aligned me with the traditions here and made me want to fight to keep them.

The latest attack on those traditions is an ongoing lawsuit waged by Napeague landowners to wrest a stretch of beach from control of the East Hampton Town Trustees and in turn from public use. The suit brought against both the trustees and the town board has been in the works for nearly two years, yet many of us are just hearing about it now. A judgment is coming down to the wire, and unless there’s some out-of-the-box thinking and quick action, a very dangerous precedent regarding privatization of public beaches may be set.


Six months back, there were rumors about Napeague property owners complaining that beach drivers were speeding in front of their beachfront properties, coming too close to beach users. There were more complaints of noise, beach fires, and dogs walking too close to their properties. At that time I wrote a letter to The Star speaking out against beach privatization. After my letter was printed, I was contacted by News 12 Long Island and interviewed for a short TV story that also included an interview with the attorney for the Napeague property owners. 


His statement “We don’t have a problem with people on the beach . . . only vehicles” made me think the suit was focusing mainly on the beach driving issue. But, according to a report in the March 31 Star, the suit may now be largely a “no trespassing” issue.


Was this suit ever really about beach driving? Or was that just a ploy to distract the public from seeing the true agenda? Many now believe that the suit simply amounts to a land grab by a small group of elitists with the aim of increasing the value of their beachfront properties while disenfranchising everyone else.


Just this week we were told the Napeague suit is hinging on obscure records dating back more than 100 years, records that may or may not have validity. Everyone, including the trustees, probably assumed that Napeague was safe under the protection of the Dongan Patent, so it is indeed troubling that after 129 years it’s only now coming to light that a fellow named Benson bought the disputed sand in 1882, which might mean that the trustees actually do not control this particular beach. 


If there’s even a chance that this is true, then it’s a travesty that so little information regarding this lawsuit was made available to the beachgoing public. Because surely with more information there would have been a greater uprising earlier on in support of the trustees and other town officials to defend against the lawsuit and to protect beach access — which is for many the primary benefit of living here and, for visitors, a top attraction.


Access to our beaches accounts for millions of dollars spent by visitors in motels, restaurants, shops, gas stations, movie theaters, etc., to say nothing of all the millions spent buying houses. This is an important point, not to be glossed over. Aside from those of us born and raised here and those who have chosen to make their homes here, visiting fishermen, surfers, swimmers, joggers, sunbathers, beachcombers, and countless families enjoy our beaches and contribute to our economy.


Even though the lawsuit now seems to have moved beyond beach driving, as an avid fisherman I’d still like to speak to that specific issue. Beach drivers contribute millions of dollars to local coffers. Fanatical anglers come for 20 or more weekends out of a 34-week fishing season, bringing families and spending a few hundred dollars on each trip. Some buy over $350 worth of beach-driving permits annually and bring buddies along who also spend cash freely. And during the “fall run” fishermen from all over take lengthy vacations here, putting big bucks into the pockets of merchants. Surfers, sea kayakers, and other sports enthusiasts also need vehicle access to beaches and spend plenty of money here. 

With regards to safety, after 70 years of beach driving here you’d be hard pressed to find one serious incident in which a beach driver injured a beachgoer!


East Hampton needs to take a page out of Southampton’s book. People there roared like lions when someone attempted to privatize a beach, while in East Hampton, for the most part, we’ve been squeaking like mice. 


We need to become a giant squeaky wheel if there’s still time to get the grease that will let us save Napeague. Shouldn’t we be asking for clarification of the issues in this case? Why not a Town Hall meeting, with plenty of advance notification so hundreds of stakeholders could ask questions with the press present? Conjecture is not good, in fact, it’s dangerous, so we need to hear the facts now. How about getting the town board and the trustees together in one room so we can help both bodies act in concert. With anything less than immediate action, this nightmare of beach privatization will become a harsh reality.


Here are just a few questions that should be on the agenda at a Town Hall meeting: Has anyone besides dueling lawyers been speaking or negotiating with the plaintiffs? What is being negotiated, if anything? Is the judge siding with us so far? Can our lawyer win this precedent-setting case without negotiating? What role are the town supervisor and town board playing in this drama, and are they acting in concert with the trustees? If our attorneys can’t win this suit, what other strategies might the town employ to put pressure on the plaintiffs to capitulate?


Several months back, a trustee quoted in The Star mentioned the possibility of having the disputed portion of beach condemned. Would that be a possible last-resort tactic that could serve to lower the value of the plaintiffs’ properties, the threat of which might prompt them to drop their suit or make major concessions?


When a lawyer representing the plaintiffs calls for a no-trespass motion, as reported in The Star, it sounds ominously as if even beach walkers and sunbathers would be prohibited from accessing the sand above the high-water mark, so prepare to get wet!


On Napeague do we allow ourselves to be herded like sheep into restrictive, narrow, and damp areas close to parking lots? Do we encourage a nightmarish precedent that could possibly lead to the loss of additional public beaches in the near future? Wouldn’t we all be ashamed of ourselves if the legacy we passed down to our children and grandchildren were to have allowed the privatization of our town’s beaches?


My October letter to The Star sparked more than 80 phone calls and e-mails from not only concerned fishermen but also, amazingly, from sympathetic non-fishers and non-beach drivers who felt the tradition of riding along the beach to enjoy a family gathering, surf, or enable a disabled person to have a day on the sand was an integral part of what makes the South Fork so special.


Old Mr. Benson, who we are told may have purchased Napeague 129 years ago, has long since been dead and buried. If we could dig him up and magically get him to speak, maybe he’d say, “What kind of curmudgeon do you think I am? Of course I’ll allow my neighbors to walk and drive on my beach.” 


In the movie version of this calamity, our lawyer would discover Benson’s great-great-grandson still living here and in possession of a legal document scribbled by his great-great-granddad. Over closing music, we’d hear his dying words granting free beach access to the people. “Let them have their traditions, yes, let them walk, swim, fish, and pull their carts on the beach if that’s what makes them happy.”


But this is not the movie version. East Hampton is at a crossroads. Do we bury our heads in the sand, or do we draw a line in it?



It seems the very people who want there own space, came and bought some, for what the area has long stood for. The erosion of all coastal area is inevitable, and everyone wants to save there piece when the problem will cause them to lose there space. Nature has been proving recently we are no match.
I strongly believe that all the beach should be available to all. Look at Georgica Association as an example. My amateur understanding is they "own" some beach but have never prevented access. If the napeague owners want their own beach, let them create their own town complete- police and fire protection, snow removal, trash removal, school district etc. The concluding point, we are in a dangerous place when a lawsuit enables us to pick and choose what we like about where we live.
when they ask for assistance to replace their eroded beaches to save their houses, will they have to fend for themselves? Or come to the town they betray in a lawsuit?

The people who support this SUIT apparently do not care about the economic ramifications of this action. If PRIVATIZERS are allowed to place fences, gates, and boulders with a sprinkling of NO TRESPASS signs on their property....there will be no public access. WHO will come to our town then? THE town board MUST do everything in its power to work in concert with the trustees to defeat this suit. At the very least our TOWN BOARD needs to make a public statement to assure the community that they are not throwing in the towel. The safe, and uncreative politics of AVOIDANCE...will not prevent the privatization of Napeague.

This lawsuit is dangerous and stupid. Someone with common sense should step in and just say no. Where does their property end and community property begin? Does their land extend into the water? Do they own the water too? What if this were on a lake with drinking water? Could they charge for the use of their water? What if it was the drinking water of local residents? The suit is ridiculous and should be dismissed.
If the Napeague property owners succeed then the public has the right to reappraise that land at a higher value and collect back taxes. Suitable interest and penalty should apply, especially since that land hasn't paid its fair share since 1882.

I believe from reading all the blogs and the newspaper coverage (especially the ones about last weeks public meeting) that the lawsuit stems from trucks on the beach...not people. Apparently the town allows trucks here but no where else and the plaintiffs have mounted a reasonable challenge to that practice. As far as I can tell there are only a handful of town residents who actually demand the right to drive on the beach. Why should the rest of us be sacrificed in the name of the trucks? Why can't they use a parking lot or buy a permit and drive on the State Park instead? It's time for our officials to offer a settlement that preserves access on foot before its too late.

BEACHWALKER, WHY DON'T YOU DO US ALL A BIG FAVOR AND MOVE TO CALIFORNIA WHERE ALL BEACHES ARE PRIVATIZED? Beach driving here is highly regulated and practiced on all beaches...with not one serious accident ever being recorded in seventy years. Hundreds of families in our town practice and enjoy RESPONSIBLE beach driving without ever causing any problems. You are obviously one of the"KNOW IT ALL" anti-beach driving fanatics, with little regard for local traditions, nor do you care, for the families, seniors,sportsmen,frail, and disabled beach goers who require a vehicle for access purposes.NAPEAGUE is a family beach and people have been driving on that sand since the thirties...and that is the way it should remain. If you are too selfish to share the beach...please move...your rants are truly BECOMING SILLIER and MORE BORING with each self serving word.LEARN TO SHARE THE SAND WITH YOUR NEIGHBORS OR GET LOST!

I am happy to share the sand with my neighbors....but  not their trucks.  It is not fair to ask me to sacrafice my beach  just so you can drive on it.  I have been walking on this beach for 40 years and my parents long before that.  The situaion with 4x4s has deteriorated dramatically over my lifetime.   As a matter of fact, has anyone bothered to understand how many permits are sold and to whom?  This is not about my Amagansett and East Hampton neighbors driving on the beach....this is about the Town selling permits to people from all over the east end and  beyond because only East Hampton allows this activity.  It is time to treat everyone and every  beach equally.   Insult me all  you will not solve this conflict.

It is not your beach. There have been many cases ajudicated in courts over many many years. The publics right to use of the beaches on the East End of Long Island has been proven.The Town may rule on times of use for the beach vehicles. The residents of these Towns have ridden on the beach for generations. We have pictures of our ancestors ridding on lthe beach in horse and wagon.And for your information driving on the beach is allowed in Southampton Town also. In fact I'll bet, when the permits of all who drive on the beach quite a few reveal names of folks whose primary resident is in NYC. 

For those folks critical of a law suit I do agree. What I am referring to is the 1686 Dongan Pattent set out by the then Gov. of the NY Colony.  Among othr things it says"--- all waters up to the high water mark are public waters and residents are permitted unfettered access."Now we know in all the towns along the South Shore there are areas which are difficult to access. But still, residents have a right to free use of the ocean water and the beach up to the dunes.