The East Hampton Town Trustees are making the right move in joining a group of fishermen suing to preserve their access to a 4,000-foot-long portion of ocean beach. At stake is not just this stretch of beach, but whether or not people engaged in fishing can use the beaches in locations throughout East Hampton Town.
The suit seeks to essentially overturn a decision last year by the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division that sided with several property owners associations who wanted to block people with trucks from congregating there on summer weekends to swim, picnic, or simply relax in the sun. The property owners’ argument centered on the legal deeds to their land, which generally defined the properties’ seaward boundaries as the high-water line — this is common across the town — on bay and ocean beaches alike.
If this decision is ultimately allowed to stand, it could put in jeopardy not just fishing, but access to dry sand even on foot, if a property owner wanted to take it that far. There are signs that this could come. Meanwhile, the Napeague property owners have asked a court to order East Hampton Town officials to enforce the ban on trucks, something that they seem to have only very reluctantly done so far by not preventing trespassing and by perhaps not making it as clear as it should be that beach driving permits do not give holders the right to drive on the Napeague property at issue.
Driving on the beach had been a thing here for as long as there had been trucks, but with an increasing number of vehicles with town-issued beach-driving permits what had once been an occasional thing grew out of control, as the homeowners saw it. With more than 100 trucks lined up along the shoreline on many summer Sundays, conflict was inevitable. And hardly all of the crowd were locals; nonresident permit-holders could join as well, and even those who had bought used trucks with an old permit sticker on the back bumper got away with being there.
While the homeowners prevailed in stopping the massive onslaught of 4-by-4s, the new lawsuit will ask the courts to rule on a more narrow issue — whether a clause in the landowners’ deeds that reserved the right to fish and spread nets on the beach still holds. If what the appellate judges said in a February 2021 ruling, which reserved the ability of the public to use the beach for fishing and fishing-related purposes, holds, at least that dangerous precedent will have been avoided. Whether the ancient right to fish can be extended to parking for non-fishing purposes remains to be seen, but that seems to be something that even the most determined property owners will not be able to block in the end.