Heated exchanges before Town Board agrees to settle Wading River beach lawsuit

12/06/2011 9:35 PM |

After heated discussions between board members and members of the public, the Riverhead Town Board approved a settlement in a $1 million lawsuit over beach access in Wading River in a split vote Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of homeowners whose property fronts Long Island Sound in Wading River, just east of the town beach there.

The homeowners, some of whom have erected fences on the beach, claimed the town was not enforcing trespassing laws on their property because it believes the land is publicly owned.

Supervisor Sean Walter had claimed a year ago that the town had proof that the land was, in fact, town-owned, but this year, he said the property owners have since produced deeds that prove their ownership of the beach-front land in question.

Not everyone is convinced of that.

Board members George Gabrielsen and Jodi Giglio voted against the settlement, saying more time is needed.

“This was dropped in the Town Board’s lap on Thursday and it’s only Tuesday now,” Mr. Gabrielsen said. “We’re talking about 350 years of the town’s history here.”

Mr. Gabrielsen believes the settlement will prohibit people from walking on the beach, and will set a precedent that will lead to similar lawsuits in other beachfront areas.

Mr. Walter says this is not true.

“Nothing in this settlement changes where people can and cannot drive on the beach,” he said. “The issue here is that the town thought it owned property that, in this case, it doesn’t.”

The law remains the same, he said. People can walk or drive below (seaward of) the mean high tide mark, but anything above (landward of) that is private property.

This is determined by the New York State Public Trust Doctrine, Mr. Walter said.

“I know some of you don’t want to believe that,” he said.

The supervisor acknowledged that there is rock groin on the Wading River beach that beach vehicles can’t get past without going on private property.

“I will do what I can to get over that rock groin so that we’re not impacting private property,” he said.

Susan Reeve, who said her ancestors go back to the 1600s, said that fishermen and women who drive on the beaches do a beach cleanup every year, and that clean up would not be permitted under this settlement.

“We’d be trespassing,” she said. Fishermen also keep an eye on the beaches, so that if someone gets in trouble, they are often there to help.

“This is sending a message that if you push this board, you can get anything,” she said.

Frank Walls of the New York Coalition for Recreational Fishing called the settlement a “travesty” and said “the country’s rights are going to go right down the toilet.”

The settlement acknowledges that the homeowners there own the beach to the mean high water mark — an imaginary line in the sand the landowners say is established every 18.5 years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The town may also have to put up a chain or gate across the beach to mark that spot, to keep trucks from driving and people from pitching tents above that line, something homeowners have complained of in the past. And, firefighters would be granted access in an emergency.

The homeowners would have to take down their signs and fences, according to the settlement, officials said.

Mr. Walter said the issue came up now because the judge in the case wants it to go to trial in the spring, which would require the town to do depositions in December. The town hasn’t done depositions because until this week, four board members agreed that the town could not win the lawsuit, he said.

Surveys done by surveyors for the town and the homeowners said the mean high water mark was in almost the same spot, Mr. Walter said.

Glen Just of the East End Surf Fishing Club said that the mean high water mark moves daily, and that the town would have to move the fence daily.

Mr. Walter disputed that, but said the town would move the fence from time to time to reflect changes in the mean high water mark.

“The problem is, if this goes to trial and they invalidate the section of the town code allowing beach driving, we’ve lost it all, and I’m not willing to do that,” Mr. Walter said.

“No leader negotiates out of fear, and that’s what bothers me about this,” Mr. Gabrielsen said.

“I cannot give permission to go over private property,” Councilman John Dunleavy said, in voicing support for the settlement.

“Beach access is not going to be determined by this lawsuit,” Councilman Jim Wooten said. “It will be determined by the public trust doctrine…this is a big load of hoopla over nothing.”

Mr. Wooten also said that in 15 years, there might not be any beach driving because of erosion.

Mr. Gabrielsen thinks the town should ignore its legal advice and let the judge rule on the case.

“The attorney’s whole theory is that we’re going to lose this case, but I don’t think there’s been a loss on a case like this ever in the Northeast,” he said in an interview Friday. “You’re talking about 350 years of history going to be thrown out by some idiots in Riverhead that want to make a settlement. It’s going to be a domino affect. Once we establish this precedent it’s going to go all the way across through Jamesport and what you’re going to see is a way of life that’s going to be changed forever.”

One of the homeowners that brought the lawsuit against the town, Jim Csorny, said Friday that most people, even government officials, don’t really understand the nuances of beach property rights.

“It’s not just here; it’s all over,” he said. “It’s a misconception what people really know about the beaches and how it works. It’s a little different in East Hampton and Southold and some other towns because they have trustees. But even there, private property is private property [from the mean high water mark]. And that becomes a big problem for everyone because no one seems to know where it is.

He explained that NOAA sets the line about every 18.5 years.

“And where that line is, everyone needs to stay below,” he added. “Unfortunately, in these days of litigation you cant’ just let people go wherever they want anymore, because if someone get hurt [the homeowner could be liable.] I don’t go on other people’s property, they shouldn’t come on mine.”

tgannon@timesreview.com