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Foiled Again in Truck Beach Suits

Thu, 03/23/2023 - 12:53

Judge refuses to clarify fishing rights, but fishermen vow to fight on

The 14 fishermen issued summonses in 2021 “will continue the fight," despite another setback in court, their attorney said this week.
Christopher Walsh

The New York State Supreme Court has once again sided with property owners along a 4,000-foot stretch of Napeague oceanfront popularly known as Truck Beach.

In the latest action in a saga that began in 2009, on March 9 Justice Paul J. Baisley Jr. granted five property owners associations’ motions to dismiss separate complaints by East Hampton Town and the town trustees, along with a dozen fishermen. Both sought clarification of the reservation in an 1882 deed in which the trustees conveyed some 1,000 acres on Napeague to Arthur Benson.

That reservation, in a 2016 trial decided in the town and trustees’ favor, was deemed to allow the public “to use the homeowners associations’ portion of the beach only for fishing and fishing-related purposes.”

Justice Baisley also enjoined all parties from any further filing regarding the scope of the reservation in the Benson deed without the court’s approval. While the order was signed on March 9, it was not issued until Friday.

The February 2021 Appellate Division ruling reversed much of Justice Ralph T. Gazzillo’s decision following the 2016 trial, declaring that the property owners do, in fact, own the beach to the mean high-water mark. In his March 9 ruling, Justice Baisley wrote that the Appellate Division decision held that “the reservation does not confer upon the town and trustees lawful governmental or regulatory power to issue permits allowing members of the public to operate and park vehicles on any portion of the beach owned by the homeowners associations.”

An April 2021 modified judgment and June 2021 temporary restraining order led to the town blocking vehicle access to the beach, on which residents have congregated with vehicles for generations. That, in turn, led to two civil disobedience actions in 2021, in which fishermen and their supporters drove a caravan of vehicles across the beach. In the second action, in October of that year, Marine Patrol officers issued trespassing summonses to 14 fishermen. Those cases were dismissed a year later, as no property owner had come forward to file a complaint.

The trustees’ and 12 of the 14 fishermen’s 2022 lawsuit sought class-action status on behalf of themselves and every other resident of the town, asking the same question: What is the scope of the reservation? Daniel Rodgers, the fishermen’s attorney, argues that fishing-related activity naturally includes the use of motorized vehicles, which he calls the modern equivalent of horse-drawn carriages.

Last year, Justice Baisley held the town and trustees in civil and criminal contempt and levied a significant fine for violating an injunction issued in the 2021 ruling that the stretch of oceanfront beach is privately owned. He ordered the town and trustees to pay the plaintiffs’ costs and attorneys’ fees associated with the contempt motion and a hearing, held the previous winter, that led to that order. He also ordered that all town beach-driving permits issued since the Appellate Division’s ruling be revoked. The town complied, declaring last August that no permit issued by the town confers the right to drive on the beach in question. Old permits were revoked and new ones are required.

Justice Baisley “took our 2022 case, dumped it into the bucket of the 2021 case of the town, said that ‘you don’t get two bites of the apple,’ and threw it out,” Mr. Rodgers said on Monday. “That was essentially the decision.”

In a statement issued on Saturday, Mr. Rodgers reiterated that “fishing-related” has never been sufficiently defined with respect to permitted activity on the beach. “Is it as simple as a fishing pole and a bucket as the homeowners contend?” he wrote, all in capital letters. “Or is it more nuanced, such as with carts and trucks, as local fishermen have used for over a century?”

“These cowardly homeowners have cleverly used the legal system to have every effort to answer this question dismissed,” the statement continues. “It’s clear they do not want an answer. Because it’s an answer they already know.”

He also asserted that “we will appeal to a court of competent jurisdiction. The fight to answer this question will continue.” The 14 fishermen issued summonses in 2021 “will continue the fight, fighting to earn a living and feed their families, as they have done for centuries. To answer the question: ‘What is fishing-related activity?’ “

Upon the dismissal of the 14 fishermen’s trespassing charges, in October, Mr. Rodgers announced the “Stuart Vorpahl Sunday Afternoon Truck Beach Fishing Clinic,” named for the late bayman, town trustee, and stalwart defender of public access rights, which he said would be held at the beach beginning in the spring. “We have access to the beach, because the homeowners have made clear they will not cooperate with the police,” he said on Monday, citing the fact that none of them filed a complaint against the fishermen following the civil disobedience actions. “We essentially have what we want. We will still do the fishing clinic.”

Kenneth Silverman, a spokesman for the property owners, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

 

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