More than seven months after a group of surfers were ticketed for riding waves off Montauk Point State Park, charges against all eight defendants have been dismissed by East Hampton Town Justice Catherine A. Cahill.
In her decision, written on Monday, May 5, and handed down in Town Justice Court three days later, Judge Cahill ruled that the statute cited by state prosecutors, which bans swimming in state parks unless otherwise authorized, was not intended to ban surfing.
“We’ve been saying from day one that surfing isn’t illegal, and we were right all along,” said Joe Giannini, an East Hampton surfer and attorney for the group—known by supporters as the “Montauk 8”—in an interview Thursday at the courthouse.
The surfers who were ticketed were Kenneth Angiulo of Babylon; Brian Luckey of Sag Harbor; William Lucey of Southampton; and Paul Biedrzycki, Christopher Greene, Brad McGill, David Providenti, and Jeffrey Pressman of New York City.
Despite the ruling, surfing is still not allowed at Montauk Point State Park, according to a state official. A sign leading to the North Bar beach, where the group was ticketed, indicates that skin diving, surfboarding, and the use of underwater equipment and inflated floating devices are prohibited there. George Gorman, the assistant regional director for the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said this week that the state will continue to uphold its policy, which he said is in place for safety reasons.
“The surfers surf at the wave crest where the surfcasters throw their lines for fishing, so there is a conflict and somebody could be injured,” Mr. Gorman said. “Where there are conflicting recreational users, we always try to find a balance between the two user groups.”
Eugene Alper, the chairman of the Eastern Long Island Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation’s Surfing Advisory Committee, insisted last week that his group would continue to press state officials to allow surfing at the park. With Judge Cahill’s ruling, “Our ammunition is much stronger now,” Mr. Alper said during an interview outside the court.
According to the state law the surfers were ticketed for violating, “swimming, diving, bathing, or wading in swimming pools or other waters or walking upon frozen surface thereof” on property under the parks office’s jurisdiction.
In her decision, Judge Cahill wrote that “it seems doubtful” that the State Legislature meant to include surfing when it drafted the legislation.
“There is no mention made of surfing,” Judge Cahill continued. “While it is possible to believe that the legislature might have meant to include surfing on the list, it seems doubtful … they distinguish surfing from swimming, by listing them in the alternative.”
The current dispute over surfing at the park began last year, when a park officer slapped Nancy Opitz with a ticket on June 16 for surfing at the North Bar. The charges against her were dismissed on August 15 after Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Brian Desesa said park police had cited the wrong statute on her ticket.
Within the next few weeks, in August and September, eight other people were ticketed while surfing at the North Bar. The eight cases were consolidated and Mr. Giannini moved for dismissal in November, arguing that the statute cited was not intended to prohibit surfing.
Judge Cahill’s decision last week came after months of correspondence between the defense and the Assistant District Attorney’s office.
Angela Howe, from the national Surfrider Foundation office in San Clemente, California, and William Graham from the Central Long Island chapter of the Surfriding Foundation, also represented the surfers.
The Surfriding Association has been meeting with state park officials for years to try to change policy and allow for surfing at beaches long popular with fishermen in Montauk. In 2004, state officials began permitting surfing at Camp Hero State Park to the south of Montauk Point State Park. But citing the need to separate surfers and surfcasters who fish at the beach, the state has not legalized surfing at Montauk Point.
Reached by phone on Monday, Mr. Gorman said he had heard about the ruling and would not comment on the specifics of the case. But he said that while state park officials are negotiating with members of the Surfriding Foundation, that state park is continuing to uphold its policy of prohibiting surfing there.
“New York state parks rules and regulations, and state law, gives state parks the ability … to manage the facilities and properties under our jurisdiction,” Mr. Gorman of the parks office said. “That’s all I can say right now.”
Members of the Montauk Surfcasters Association have complained that the surfers interfere with fishing and have argued that the policy should be upheld.
Mr. Giannini insisted that there is no safety issue at the North Bar. Before the case was dismissed, he said he had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the parks office and found only one documented incident between a surfer and a fisherman at the beach. In that case, he said, a fisherman twice hooked the same surfer, who was not injured.
Mara Dias, the co-chair of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfriding Association, said on Thursday that as long as the state is still prohibiting surfing at the North Bar, she is not encouraging people to surf along the beach. But Mr. Giannini insisted that the state has no right to stop people from surfing at the North Bar, and said that he and other surfers would be out there this summer.
“If they decided to ticket people now, I would deem that vindictive and malicious,” Mr. Giannini said. “Surfing is legal out there, surfing has been legal out there and surfing always will be legal out there.”