A Belated Recognition of Trustee Authority

Molly Zweig constructed a revetment in front of her property at 11 West End Road in 2013, with a permit from the state, despite objections from the East Hampton Town Trustees. David E. Rattray

The East Hampton Town Trustees and East Hampton Village are nearing a settlement that would end a protracted legal struggle with a West End Road resident over a 166-foot-long rock revetment constructed on the ocean beach adjoining the resident’s property. 

At their meeting on Monday, the trustees voted to approve a settlement agreement with Molly Zweig, who constructed a revetment in front of 11 West End Road in 2013 after receiving required permitting from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the village’s zoning board of appeals. This despite the persistent objection of the trustees, who own many of the town’s common lands, including beaches, on behalf of the public. 

The trustees had maintained that most if not all of the revetment would be situated on trustee-owned land, and that even if the revetment was outside of their jurisdiction, it could have a significant impact on adjacent lands they own and govern, granting them jurisdiction. Ms. Zweig had argued that the deed to her property includes ownership to the mean high water mark of the ocean, and therefore she owned the land at which the revetment was constructed. 

“We’ve been able to agree that her south boundary would be designated by the [beach] grass line, just as most properties along the south shore are,” Francis Bock, the trustees’ presiding officer, said on Tuesday. “We also got her to recognize the trustees, which she was refusing to do before.” As a consequence, Ms. Zweig recently applied to the trustees and was issued a permit to install sand fencing, and she will have to secure a permit for machinery or vehicles to traverse the beach to access the revetment for maintenance. “I know she has a set of stairs” leading to the beach, Mr. Bock said. “Anything that has to be done with stairs, she has to come back to us for a permit.” 

“She was claiming the entire beach in front of her,” Mr. Bock said, “based on a deed that seemed to have mysteriously changed somehow, many years ago. We got her to agree to recognize the beach grass line” as the property’s southern boundary. 

David Eagan, an attorney formerly representing the trustees in the matter, told The Star in 2013 that Ms. Zweig’s claim to owning metes and bounds — a legal description of land measurements — extending to the ocean was false. In fact, he said, the chain of title from the time the property was first conveyed to a private owner, in 1902, indicated that “the southern boundary concept was ‘edge of the beach grass line.’ ” 

Ms. Zweig and East Hampton Village must still sign off on the agreement. East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. would not comment on Tuesday, as he had yet to review it. 

Following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which flattened a dune at the beach in question, and Superstorm Sandy, which caused further damage the following year, Ms. Zweig sought to remove a rock groin that had been constructed decades earlier, build a rock revetment, restore the eroded dune with 4,000 cubic yards of sand, plant beach grass, and install snow fence. In October 2013, after a lengthy and controversial hearing, the village’s Z.B.A. granted permits to do that work, over the trustees’ objection. Diane McNally, the trustees’ clerk at the time, implored the board to consider alternatives, given a revetment’s potential detrimental impact on the adjacent shoreline. 

Ms. Zweig’s revetment was to be 40 feet landward of that in front of an adjacent property, on a stretch of shoreline from West End Road to Main Beach where most properties are protected by some kind of structure. 

On Veterans Day in 2013, when courts were closed, boulders were transported to the beach and construction of a revetment commenced. The trustees filed an Article 78 court challenge to the determination, and two days later won a temporary restraining order to stop it. 

In February 2014, Ms. Zweig applied for a permit from the trustees, which they had insisted she was required to do. The following month, Ms. McNally said the application was incomplete; it was later withdrawn. But the restraining order was lifted the following month, and the project was completed. 

The Z.B.A. revisited the matter, reaching the same conclusion it did in 2013, adopting, in January 2015, a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, meaning that an environmental impact study would not be required of the applicant. In April 2016, a State Supreme Court Justice denied the trustees’ petition to annul the negative declaration. 

The trustees scored a victory in April 2017 when another State Supreme Court justice denied Ms. Zweig’s request for summary judgment after having reviewed deeds and a title examiner’s affidavit asserting that the trustees could not claim title to the disputed area. 

At their meeting on Monday, however, the trustees, none of whom were in that role when the body sued Ms. Zweig, expressed relief at the prospect of putting the matter behind them, and with it the considerable legal fees expended. 

“Most importantly,” Mr. Bock said at the meeting, “it brings in the grass line” as the property’s boundary. 

“That’s the most valuable thing about this whole settlement,” said Bill Taylor, a deputy clerk of the trustees, “that it restores the grass line.”

“I think it’s in the public’s best interest, and the trustees’ best interest,” said Rick Drew. “Given what this board inherited with the project, it’s a best-case outcome.”

“We can go on forever,” Jim Grimes, the other deputy clerk, said of litigation. “Every month this goes by, we are fielding bills from our attorneys.”

Christopher Carillo, the trustees’ attorney, said that he and Brian Matthews, an attorney retained by the trustees in the litigation effort, “went back and forth on the permit language to limit the precedential effect of this, because the concern among the trustees was any other homeowner saying ‘We no longer need a trustee permit,’ and using this as evidence. We narrowly tailored this permit to use the settlement language so that it’s extremely clear that this permit is a result of this settlement agreement.” 

A property owner attempting to avoid securing a permit concerning trustee jurisdiction would be required to “go through Zweig-scale litigation,” he said.