East Hampton Town officials find themselves in the untenable situation of a state court that seems dead-set against them. This is apparent in the latest twist in the long-running dispute over so-called Truck Beach on Napeague.
The issue for the state court justice handling the matter was, in his mind, that town officials did not sufficiently respond to a 2021 order that blocked most four-wheel-drive vehicles on a 4,000-foot length of ocean shoreline. But Justice Paul J. Baisley Jr. appeared to have made it personal. To describe his contempt finding against the town as strongly worded would be to seriously understate the degree of animus it contained — as well as an apparent misunderstanding of how the town’s beach driving permits work. While the full Appellate Division allowed driving on the upper beach for “fishing and fishing related purposes,” Justice Baisley took it on himself to go much further, subsequently barring all vehicles, regardless of why they were on the beach. This evident dislike is additionally troubling in that Justice Baisley has also been handling some aspects of the town’s legal struggle to regulate its own airport.
Townspeople’s use of the beaches in East Hampton Town is a question that has been in various courts since the 19th century, and there has never been an easy answer. During the colonial period, when East Hampton was part of the British Empire, rights to collect seaweed, fish, and pursue whales were codified into law. Even the earliest documents involving the Montaukett people, from whom the English took the rich land itself, sometimes deal with the beaches.
Technology, specifically the automobile, changed how shores were used, but it took a long time. Land deeds generally reserved for the townspeople the right to “land fish boats and netts to spread the netts on the adjacent sands and care for the fish and material as has been customary heretofore.” This language had appeared all over the town’s legal records over the years.
Even after trucks replaced horse-drawn wagons on the beaches, it was decades before four-wheel-drive vehicles exploded in popularity. During the 20th century, trucks were few on the sand, used mostly for commercial haulseining, sportfishing, and the occasional surfer hunting for a decent wave. But sometime in the early 2000s, things really began to change, and it became common practice for vehicles to be used by beachgoers looking to put a little distance between themselves and the summer weekend crowds — and so Truck Beach was born. Whether this can be called a tradition depends on one’s personal definition of the word.
In East Hampton, that colonial-era right to cart fish was interpreted broadly, allowing parking with beach chairs and barbecue grills on what many landowners’ deeds said was private property. Certainly, some town residents did park on the disputed beach section over the years for reasons other than fishing, but it was only in the past two decades that its popularity exploded and the name Truck Beach came into general use. (The first use of “truck beach” in this newspaper was in 2011.) At its peak, as many as 200 trucks could be counted parked there. Frustration among upland property owners reached a breaking point.
Collateral damage in the town’s appeal of the case are about 6,000 beach driving permits. In his contempt ruling, Justice Baisley ordered all permits issued since early February last year revoked because, as he saw it, the town did not sufficiently alert permit-holders that they must stay off the litigated section of shore — at least to the high-water mark. But what he meant by this and how the stickers should have been distributed remained unclear. (The February date comes from when the town’s appeal in the case was denied.) Since a subsequent order to force the town to comply by blocking an access road and posting signs, among other steps, very few vehicles have crossed that section of beach, it is worth noting, aside from those of fishermen and their supporters taking part in organized acts of civil disobedience in protest of the rulings.
Oddly too, in his decision, Justice Baisley appeared to indicate that the town was supposed to do what the president of one of the homeowners’ associations told them to, in terms of how to block off the section of beach. One really has to wonder just who has been whispering in the court’s ear.
Contempt of court, however, is a serious matter. In his ruling last Thursday, Justice Baisley fined the town $239,000 and ordered it to pay attorneys’ fees and court costs for the Napeague plaintiffs. Additional fines could come if the town does not immediately begin reissuing the thousands of beach driving permits. This is a very difficult situation for the town to find itself in, one that may not be resolved until another part of the judicial system reviews the case.