Seawall Blocks More Than Waves — Beach Access Too

Sandbags placed on the Gardiner’s Bay shore on behalf of the designer Stella McCartney and her husband, Alasdhair Willis, and a neighbor have blocked a traditional beach access path used by residents of Bay View Avenue on Lazy Point in Amagansett. David E. Rattray

Steve Graboski was puzzled, years ago, when he sought permits for placing protective sand on the beach at his Bay View Avenue, Amagansett, house and was told to ask the East Hampton Town Trustees. But now a new owner has gone around the trustees to build a massive sandbag seawall, blocking the neighborhood’s traditional access to the beach in the process, he said.

On Monday, Mr. Graboski appeared at Town Hall to ask for the trustees’ help in assuring that the Bay View Avenue property owners could continue to get to the Gardiner’s Bay beach. Bay View Avenue, on Lazy Point, is a narrow private street paved only in places. Mr. Graboski still has a house there.

When he had owned the waterfront property, permit conditions were strict, he said. “At no time would the work be allowed to block the access path.” The path, once part of a sandy road, is now narrowed to about six feet in places and blocked to vehicles by a small granite boulder.

“That’s actually a right of way for the residents of that road,” Mr. Graboski said.

As he explained to the trustees on Monday, the owners of the two waterfront house lots on Bay View Avenue, Nicholas Grecco and Stella McCartney, hired First Coastal of Westhampton Beach to place a double tier of sandbags during a recent dune restoration. Once the tightly packed bags were in place, it meant that to get to the beach, residents had to clamber up and down about five feet of the vertical plastic surface.

He said that Mr. Grecco had received a trustee permit for sand replacement. Ms. McCartney did not seek trustee permission but rather went to the town’s Building Department, which issued her a six-month emergency authorization, including the sandbags, also known as geotubes or geocubes. Her authorization expired more than a year ago.

“And, if that is the case, the tubes should have come out a long time ago,” Mr. Graboski said. 

The neighbor to the west, Mr. Grecco, obtained an extension of his trustee permit; it expires this coming summer. 

Sandbags are allowed here under town and state law only as a temporary measure to protect structures in imminent danger from the sea. They are supposed to be removed within six months of installation, with the possibility of an extension of up to three months, while a permanent, nonstructural solution, such as pumping sand on a beach or moving a house away from the brink, is found. The Grecco and McCartney properties are in a zone set by the town where all “hard” structures, including sandbags and wood, metal, or stone revetments, are not allowed under any circumstances.

As an aside during the meeting, Bill Taylor of the trustees observed that the town itself had disregarded the law concerning the removal of emergency sandbags, citing the downtown Montauk project designed by the Army Corps of Engineers. As with the Bay View Avenue properties, new permanent erosion-control structures are prohibited on the Montauk ocean beaches.

A wrinkle in all this is that Madeleine Narvilas, a lawyer working on Mr. Grecco’s behalf, told the trustees that they had long ago relinquished authority over the beach. In a letter, Ms. Narvilas cited a 1912 quitclaim deed from the trustees conveying title to the upper beach when the Hollymere subdivision was created before World War I. If true, that would have put the trustees out of the equation well before Mr. Grecco owned the lot.

The 1912 document cited by Ms. Narvilas described the plot from which Hollymere — and the McCartney and Grecco lots — was later carved as bounded to the north by Gardiner’s Bay. In Ms. Narvilas’s estimation, that meant that the trustees had relinquished public ownership and regulatory authority over the beach there. 

“Under well-settled New York law, any conveyance of upland property to a tidal shoreline extends to mean high water,” Ms. Narvilas wrote in her letter to the trustees. Ms. Narvilas works in the law office of Richard E. Whalen, a former town trustee and town zoning board attorney now in private practice.

“For him to say, ‘That’s not in your jurisdiction,’ that’s shocking to me,” Mr. Graboski said of Mr. Whalen. “In fact you guys were the ones that issued the emergency permits years ago initially, and then we would have to go through the Building Department.”

“He did not have the right to make that call,” he said.

“I fear that she is going to hook onto this access and the residents be damned. Next thing you know, it will be her property. Won’t let you get to the beach,” Mr. Graboski said.

Trustee Rick Drew appeared to agree: “I don’t understand how she was permitted to put this in front of the access. That may not be correct at all.”

According to town records, two parcels of land once were between the bay and Mr. Grecco’s house; they are now underwater. On paper, at least, Bay View Avenue provided access to the town-owned parcels of now-underwater land, which remain on the official tax maps.

In a 1978 property survey supplied to the trustees by Ms. Narvilas, Bay View Avenue is depicted as reaching across the beach to mean high water. The Grecco parcel is shown ending well short of the beach.

Ms. McCartney, a fashion designer, and her husband, Alasdhair Willis, the creative director of the Hunter boot company based in Scotland, bought the house in 2016 for $1.5 million. At the time, the land was described as about three-quarters of an acre.

The couple listed it as a rental at $30,000 a month the following summer. Ms. McCartney is the daughter of the Beatles singer Paul McCartney and the former Linda Eastman, an East Hampton summer resident who died in 1998. 

The property has been eroded by approximately a third since its lot lines were drawn. 

In the letter, Ms. Narvilas of the Whalen firm said that the 1912 quitclaim deed “simply confirmed” a record of a 1748 allotment by the town trustees to a Daniel Dayton for a portion of Napeague known as lot 10. Lot 10 became Hollymere. Easily accessed town records list only the transfer of the land without describing its boundaries. 

As for the position that the trustees no longer have jurisdiction over that portion of the beach, Mr. Drew said, “That’s not an official call. That’s [Mr. Whalen’s] opinion, so we are going to look into it.”