A Hicks Island No Man’s Land

Mysterious signs cite no authority but prohibit public access
Rod Richardson cleaned debris from Hicks Island as part of the townwide Shoreline Sweep organized by Dell Cullum on Saturday. Restricted access to the island means more trash, Mr. Richardson told the East Hampton Town Trustees. Rod Richardson

An Earth Day beach cleanup on Hicks Island, at Lazy Point in Amagansett, on Saturday has led to charges that the State Department of Environmental Conservation and Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation are unlawfully prohibiting the public’s right to access the beach there. 

Rod Richardson told the East Hampton Town Trustees at its meeting on Monday that he decided to clean up Hicks Island on Saturday, and that he believes that no one had removed litter from the beach there because of signs proclaiming it a bird sanctuary and therefore closed to the public. Signs prohibiting “dogs, camping, picnicing [sic],” or boat landing bear no reference to their origin or jurisdictional authority, he said. 

“Those signs that prevent public access also prevent citizens of East Hampton from getting their eyes on what’s going on, on Hicks Island,” Mr. Richardson, a member of Citizens for Access Rights, told the trustees. “There was a tremendous amount of trash there,” including plastic mesh, fishing nets, and Styrofoam. 

The beach on Hicks Island is entirely foreshore, Mr. Richardson said. The wrack line, the line of organic and inorganic debris left on the beach by high tide, “is right up at the grass, and in some cases goes well into the grass,” indicating, he said, that it is under jurisdiction of the trustees, who own and manage most of the town’s beaches, waterways, and bottomlands on behalf of the public as granted by the Dongan Patent of 1686. 

“This is on the beach,” Mr. Richardson told the trustees. “That beach is owned by the trustees.” The signs, he said, are “denying public access, trespassing on your property, denying your mission.” 

The D.E.C. lists the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation as the owner and managing agency of its Napeague Conservation Area. A D.E.C. spokesman referred questions to George Gorman, a deputy regional director of that office. Mr. Gorman said yesterday that he agreed that he agreeed his agency owns Hicks Island but had to confer with colleagues before providing additional information. Thomas Dess, the park manager at Montauk Point State Park, had not returned two calls seeking information as of yesterday.

According to the State Department of State’s coastal policies document, “Access to the publicly owned foreshore and to lands immediately adjacent to the foreshore or the water’s edge that are publicly owned shall be provided and it shall be provided in a manner compatible with adjoining uses.” Also, the document states, “Water-dependent and water-enhanced recreation will be encouraged and facilitated, and will be given priority over non-water-related uses along the coast.” 

The D.E.C., which lists the piping plover and several species of tern as endangered, erects fencing and signs to protect the shorebirds during their nesting season, from early spring into summer. 

But, Mr. Richardson said, there are no endangered shorebirds on Hicks Island. He cited a 2006 D.E.C. report stating that the east channel between Hicks Island, part of Napeague State Park, and Goff Point, part of Hither Hills State Park, had closed as a result of sand deposition, creating a land bridge. “The Hicks Island tern colony was eliminated by one to two foxes and perhaps other terrestrial predators,” according to the document. 

“The very purpose of the D.E.C. having control of that to keep it a sanctuary failed,” Mr. Richardson said. The signs misinform and confuse the public, Mr. Richardson said. “You have every authority to take down those signs that breach the public trust and deny public access,” he said. 

In an essay written after Saturday’s cleanup, Mr. Richardson wrote that the state “should voluntarily step down and turn over the stewardship of the land” to the trustees. Failing that, the trustees should take legal action against the agency for breach of trust and violation of state policy, he said. In the short term, the trustees should remove the signs prohibiting public access, which he said infringe on their authority. 

At the meeting, the trustees agreed that the signs were improper and pledged to take action. But on Tuesday, Francis Bock, the governing body’s clerk, said that the trustees “have to do a little research and confirm whether or not” Hicks Island is state-owned and if the trustees have jurisdiction over the beach. “I can’t respond until we look at it,” he said.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the connection between cleanup on Hicks Island and Citizens for Access Rights was misstated. Mr. Richardson is a member of the group, but neither the cleanup, nor his subsequent presentation to the East Hampton Town Trustees, were done on behalf of the group.

Rod Richardson