The longstanding battle over public access to a strip of beach in Wading River appears to be on the verge of ending.
The Riverhead Town Board will be voting Tuesday on whether to settle a $1 million federal lawsuit filed against the town by four couples that own Soundfront land just east of Wading River Beach.
And the five-member board is leaning toward settling the matter, according to interviews with four members Friday.
The settlement would acknowledge 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.
At least one councilperson, George Gabrielsen, is speaking out against settling, as the town’s outside counsel has advised.
“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,” Mr. Gabrielsen said. “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 Jameport and what you’re going to see is a way of life that’s going to be changed forever.”
“Let the judge make the decision,” he continued. “It doesn’t even matter who’s right and wrong. It’s been gray area forever. But once you settle you’re finished.”
Supervisor Sean Walter, who appears to have the votes of councilmen John Dunleavy and Jim Wooten, and possibly Jodi Giglio, says the town and its residents lose nothing by settling. But moving forward with the lawsuit could cost the town upwards of $1.5 million, considering awards and legal costs, if it loses.
It was only last summer when Mr. Walter was saying the property owners “had no case,” because the town had found a tax map from 1979 saying the beach was a town beach. The lawsuit was filed not long after property owners put up “No trespassing” signs along the beach and Mr. Walter threatened to have them ripped down.
Mr. Walter said the title searches has since proved the town wrong. “And these people have deeds,” he said, noting the town does not.
That tax map — if proved accurate — would have granted the public another 70 to 100 feet landward of the mean high water mark, said Ms. Giglio, who told the paper she wanted to do more research on the matter before deciding on how to vote at Tuesday’s 2 p.m board meeting in Riverhead Town Hall.
“If we settle…the problem is, if something transpires between now and another lawsuit is brought, say if something 50 years from now says, ‘No, [the homeowners] don’t own the land,’ we’ve already settled and we’ve signed our lives away and we’ll never win in court and we’ll never win the rights to it.”
“And what if you drive out during low tide and you’re trying to drive back during high tide and there’s a gate?” she asked, noting that such a scenario could ruin whatever truck was driving on the beach that day because it would be forced into the water.
But Mr. Walter, Mr. Dunleavy and Ms. Giglio insisted people driving on the beach — namely, fishermen — don’t really lose anything under the proposed settlement because town beach permits say they cannot drive landward of the mean high water mark anyway. And if they did, be it in on this strip of beach or anywhere else in town, they would be subject to a ticket.
“There was a glimmer of hope early on that the town has rights to some of these properties along the beach, but the town does not own those properties,” Mr. Walter said. “And at the end of the day, even if the town owns the property it doesn’t make a difference, because the town code only allows you to drive from the mean high water mark to the low water mark.
“We met with the fire department; they’re happy with the settlement. And the residents have agreed to remove all the obstructions. We have signs on all our beaches saying to drive between the mean high and low water marks and we’re going to do enforcement like we did last year.”
A brush fire that sparked near the beach this year also sparked a public war of words between the homeowners and Wading River fire officials, who were obstructed by fences some of the homeowners had erected to keep trucks off the property in question. The firefighters damaged some of those fences getting to the brush fire.
One of the homeowners that brought the lawsuit against the town, Jim Csorny, said Friday he didn’t want to comment specifically about the settlement.
“It’s still a lawsuit,” he said. “Let’s see how the [Town Board] vote goes and then after that, maybe people will decide what to say.”
He did say, however, 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.”
Still, Mr. Gabrielsen says he has some time before Tuesday’s Town Board meeting to change some of his fellow board members’ minds.
“How is this a gain to the town?” he said. “There’s always been a dispute. Always. ‘I own it. You own it.’ I’m just afraid this is going to be happening all the way through Jamesport, with everyone claiming the beach. Those people, Csorny, other homeowners come and go, but the beach is forever.”
He also said it’s extremely rare that a town would settle a property rights dispute involving a beach.
“Nobody ever settles these cases; these people go away,” he said. “Southampton is in like eight lawsuits right now. There’s never been a case ruled against a town yet. Why would we be the first one?”